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“That Grotesque and Laughable Word”: Rethinking Patriotism in Time of War

ISSUE:  Spring 2007

On April 14, 1887, Walt Whitman delivered a lecture he had given several times before, describing a moment that his audience knew well. Whitman reserved his talk, “Death of Abraham Lincoln,” for the assassination’s anniversary. This performance fell on the twenty-second commemoration. “The New York literati listened in religious silence to that resplendent discourse . . . the whisperings of the stars,” reported José Martí, the Cuban revolutionary, writing for an Argentinean publication. He joined a remarkable audience. Those gathered in the Madison Square Theatre included Martí and Mark Twain. Andrew Carnegie paid $350 for a box (out of the $600 Whitman earned for the performance), though it is unclear whether the industrialist attended. General William Tecumseh Sherman and his wife did.

Viewed collectively, the distinguished crowd represents an allegory of patriotism, as the members suggest the idea’s various meanings, its darker and more hopeful definitions. Interpreted in this fashion, Martí symbolizes anti-imperialist patriotism, what his translator calls “a patriotism of bridges, not barriers.” “Patriotism,” Martí wrote, is “the best (of all known) leavenings for all human virtues.” A poet doomed to die young, fighting for his country’s independence, Martí celebrated Whitman’s use of foreign words as a gesture of solidarity, not an affectation as some American and British readers believe. “Certain words of our language,” Martí observed, “can be found on every page in his book: viva, camarada, libertad, americanos.” The very words Martí repeats encourage life and invite friendship. Whitman’s Spanish offers a geo-political model presented in linguistic miniature. The borrowed words signal mutual respect, not imperial violence and subjugation, as if answering Martí’s later call, “The nations arise and salute one another.”

The image of a nineteenth-century military man, Sherman, bearded and with a haunted stare, evokes patriotism’s fearful complexities. Writing four years later as the general lay dying, Twain noted, “I, like all the rest of the nation, grieve to think the kindest heart & the most noble spirit that exist today will be taken away from us.”) Gathered to celebrate Lincoln, many in the Madison Square Theatre audience would have accepted Twain’s tender, untrue words. As they knew, though, “all the rest of the nation” did not view Sherman with similar affection. “To Georgians and South Carolinians,” Sherman’s biographer observes, “he remains a beast.” Indeed, Sherman viewed his own legacy ambivalently. By the time of Whitman’s lecture, Sherman completed the second edition of his briskly selling memoirs, yet, in a famous pronouncement, he questioned the “realities” books “tell.” Addressing 5,000 veterans in 1880, Sherman observed:

The war is away back in the past and you can tell what books can not. When you talk you come down to practical realities just as they happened. . . . There is many a boy here to-day who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell. . . . I look upon war with horror, but if it has to come, I am here.

To his supporters, Sherman represents an acceptance of citizenship’s burdens and responsibilities. To Sherman’s critics, his actions anticipate the worst cruelties of modern warfare, as he develops “a policy of deliberate intimidation” that presaged “the Schrecklichkeit exploited by the Germans in the first World War as well as the Blitzkrieg of the second,” the use of “terrorization” as “a weapon.” In a tellingly complicated appreciation, Edmund Wilson praised Sherman’s memoirs for this reason: because they lucidly clarify the Civil War’s “patriotic gore.”

Twain, though, represents the harshest, more cynical view of patriotism, a wholesale condemnation of the principle that he expressed repeatedly toward the end of his life. Sherman employs conjunctions and antithesis, both of which acknowledge the difficulties that citizenship presents, the contradictions between experience and aspiration. Impatient, Twain disdains qualification. He extols Sherman without reservation, writing “I, like all the rest of the nation” admire him as the “kindest heart & the most noble spirit” (my italics). When Twain considers patriotism, he reverses the same unyielding rhetoric. Patriotism represents destruction without purpose, evil in cause and effect. In sketches, diary entries, interviews and conversations, Twain repeats the curious assumption that underpins his praise of Sherman: he cannot conceive that a fellow citizen might honorably disagree with him.

In this respect Twain represents a particular kind of American writer: a man of the left often praised for his political bravery, for his willingness to condemn fellow citizens for their hypocrisy. Yet Twain offers an unhelpful model, especially toward the end of his life. Too often he and the writers who follow his example caricature those they portray and simplify the nation they analyze. A narrowness of vision and expression, this tendency undermines their efforts as artists and cultural critics.

At the Madison Square Theatre as well as elsewhere, Whitman starts from a very different position than Twain. He personalizes patriotism, writing Lincoln grand poems of praise and heartbroken elegies. While the performance clearly expresses this love, it also dramatizes a more difficult fact: that the nation, Whitman included, has moved past Lincoln’s actual existence. Whitman celebrates and laments this situation, with sentences that shuttle from assertions to questions. Consider this passage in which Whitman interrupts his own observations with parenthetical asides:

Strange, (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense—perhaps only really, lastingly condense—a Nationality.

I repeat it—the grand deaths of the race—the dramatic deaths of every nationality—are its most important inheritance-value—in some respects beyond its literature and art—(as the hero is beyond its choicest song or epic.)

A major death defines a country’s sense of itself, the consciousness of its own “Nationality.” Such a death tells a country’s citizens who they are. It gains importance in the retelling, transforming a loss into a cultural inheritance. The process of turning life into art, though, involves a certain simplification, as “a grand death” remains “in some respects beyond its literature and art.” Others might linger on this reservation, but Whitman’s soaring conclusion left it behind. Confidently he anticipated “centuries hence” when Lincoln’s death helps “leading historians and dramatists” to “mnemonize” the “Nineteenth century.” A string of epithets commingles the aesthetic, the tender, the patriotic, and the religious: “Dear to the Muse—thrice dear to Nationality,” the “first great Martyr Chief.”

As this flourish suggests, Whitman saw history as a kind of performance, rooted in actual events but open to interpretation. When considering Lincoln’s assassination, he emphasizes its theatricality. The day’s newspaper, Whitman noted, announced Lincoln’s appearance at Ford’s Theatre as if the president were cast in the play. Building this observation into a conceit, Whitman named Lincoln as “the leading actor in the stormiest drama known to real history’s stage through centuries.” Whitman imagined John Wilkes Booth rehearsing the murder, an actor about to kill an actor in a theater. Whitman added some stagecraft to this image, noting an American flag “profusely draped” over the State Box where the presidential couple sat, “the ornamented, draperied, starr’d and striped spaceway of the President’s box.” After the assassination, the flag tripped Booth as if in defense of the fallen leader, hobbling the assassin.

Whitman’s dramatization of the crime extends for nearly four pages in the Library of America’s small, cramped font. Concluding his recent study Lincoln and Whitman, Daniel Mark Epstein recounts the lecture, describing a tearful reconciliation between poet and president. “In that moment,” Epstein observes, “the men were united.” Even as he remembered decades-old events, though, Whitman emphasized the future more than the past. To name Lincoln as the “first great Martyr Chief” is to foresee other Martyr Chiefs and the audiences who follow. Whitman’s description moves from historic fact to symbolic interpretation, from what he calls “the visible incidents and surroundings of Abraham Lincoln’s murder, as they really occur’d” to their “inheritance-value.” The details of Lincoln’s life and murder concern Whitman less than the meanings they raise to future generations. For Whitman, historical fact does primarily govern our understanding of history. Instead, figures turn into the stories we tell about them. Lincoln proves a particularly rich figure for this purpose, given his leadership during our country’s most searing event—the Civil War—as well as his assassination. He remains a figure fit for continual reinterpretation.

Twain left no record of his response to the Lincoln lecture, a silence that contrasts suggestively with Martí’s effusive report. Twain admired Whitman enough to attend the lecture, and to contribute $50 “to make the splendid old soul comfortable” with a cottage in the countryside and more money a few years earlier for a horse and buggy. In conversation with others, Twain and Whitman, though, offered highly qualified praise for each other. Whitman said he had always regarded Twain as “friendly, but not warm: not exactly against me: not for me either.” Twain’s ambivalence extended beyond issues of temperament. In interviews, sketches and in diaries he increasingly attacked the stances that underpinned Whitman’s optimism. Such passages do not have Whitman specifically in mind but express a different notion of national identity, relentlessly mocking the terms Whitman embraces.

Personal and historical circumstances aggravated the two authors’ differences in temperament. Toward the end of his life, Twain endured a series of agonies, burying two daughters and his wife. Twain’s despondency merged with his anger over America’s foreign policy. Twain opposed the Philippine–American War and grew disillusioned with the Spanish-American War, which he initially enthusiastically endorsed. In a 1900 newspaper interview, he described the transformation in his thinking:

I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with the Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Phillippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do.

I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which had addressed ourselves.

But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . . .

. . . I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

Twain’s forceful language carries more than a hint of self-blame. Remembering himself as “a red-hot imperialist,” he observes, “I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific” because the other options “seemed tiresome and tame.” It is hard to judge this passage’s opening tone, at least partly because Twain sounds more flippant than intended, as if the main problem that America faced were the lack of entertaining options. He seeks to mock himself but treats a bit glibly the debate over whether imperialism should be preferred to anti-imperialism, a question that deeply concerned him. As this difficulty with tone suggests, he cannot overcome a certain challenge. To mark his distaste for his previous position, he simply reverses the opening militaristic language, employing the same vocabulary ironically, “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” Marking his position’s limitations, Twain does not develop a persuasive vocabulary for discussing the role America should play internationally. He introduces no alternative terms or metaphors, trapped in the language he rejects.

Twain’s private considerations of these issues echo his public pronouncements, as his diaries from 1905 and 1906 return to this bitter theme of America’s wrongs. Twain assesses the current state of patriotism:

There are two kinds of patriotism: monarchical patriotism and republican patriotism. In the one case the government and the king may rightfully furnish you with notions of patriotism; in the other, neither the government nor the entire nation is privileged to dictate any individual what the form of his patriotism shall be. The Gospel of the Monarchical Patriotism is: “The King can do no wrong.” We have adopted it with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording: “Our country, right or wrong!”

We have thrown away the most valuable asset we have—the individual right to oppose both flag and country when he (just he by himself) believes them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word, Patriotism.

This passage pursues a striking movement. In the opening, Twain carefully distinguishes two kinds of patriotism in order to defend the better version: “republican patriotism” is superior because it respects individual agency. In this respect, Twain advances a prototypical American argument, rooted in the values of self-determination. “[N]either the government nor the entire nation,” he observes, “is privileged to dictate any individual what the form of his patriotism shall be.” Down to the passive construction, the government and the nation lack an individual’s power, the “privilege” of self-definition. As the diary entry moves from third person to the plural first, its tone turns aggressive. Twain introduces anaphora—Whitman’s favorite technique to establish interpersonal connections—for the opposite purpose. Twain’s anaphora indicts those it addresses: “We have adopted it [monarchical patriotism] with all its servility. . . . We have thrown away the most valuable asset we have . . . We have thrown it away.” As the passage builds, Twain undermines the distinction he introduced. Twain apparently laments the degradation of an ideal, arguing for “all that was really respectable about” patriotism. The final flourish, though, overpowers this stance, as Twain dismisses the very word “Patriotism” as “grotesque and laughable,” regardless of the forms it takes.

It is tempting to resist this progression, to read the final sentence as an argument against patriotism’s contemporary meaning. This interpretation is, I believe, mistaken for two reasons. First, the grammatical construction that Twain employs argues against it. Twain does not write: “We are redefining Patriotism into a laughable and grotesque word.” The past tense asserts that such qualities always defined patriotism. The respectability that Twain praises can only hold in check patriotism’s essential nature, its ridiculous monstrosity. Second, the conclusion demonstrates the positions’ relative attractiveness. As the paragraphs’ progression suggests, an argument for patriotism relies on qualification and discrimination; a painstaking effort is needed to achieve a modest result, a basic respectability. A single, rousing phrase eradicates such efforts, achieving great intensity, the force of overstatement and terrible prophesy.

Twain’s “The War Prayer” recasts these concerns into a parable. It depicts a church service filled with soldiers about to leave for war, “in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism.” As the congregation prays for God to “watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work,” a stranger “with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light,” interrupts the service, announcing that he bears “a message from Almighty God.” The prophet bluntly translates the congregation’s euphemisms:

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord, our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

[After a pause.] “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

The crudeness of the parable’s ironies reflects Twain’s pessimism. Because patriotism produces only death and ruin, the poem never uses the word without a sneer. In his Lincoln lecture, Whitman confronted what he saw as a strange fact: that “battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense—perhaps only really, lastingly condense—a Nationality.” Twain brutally turns against such values. Only the willfully ignorant cling to this false ideal, as suggested when the congregation dismisses the prophet as “a lunatic.” Twain similarly employs the language of attack, of ridicule and indictment. This passage’s rhetorical power ascends during the prophet’s speech with the final deflating sentence flatly dismissing the possibility of change, “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.” Twain defines truth as incompatible with civic life, asserting that true understanding comes only outside the American society it depicts. The prophet’s assertions gain credibility because members of the depicted society do not believe them. An idea’s unpopularity proves its veracity.

As if to reinforce this point, Harper’s Bazaar rejected “The War Prayer,” a rebuff that Twain proudly accepted because it validated the sketch’s prophesy, as well as his own private predication. Before submitting it, Twain mentioned to a friend that he had shared the sketch with his daughter, who “had told him he must not print it, for it would be regarded as sacrilege.” The friend replied:

“Still you are going to publish it, are you not?”

Clemens, pacing the room in his dressing-gown, shook his head.

“No,” he said, “I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”

In his letters and diary Twain returned to this bitter fatalism, offered in slightly different language. Revealingly he played variations on this theme:

None but the dead have free speech.

None but the dead are permitted to speak truth.

In America—as elsewhere—free speech is confined to the dead.

The minority is always in the right.

When the country is drifting toward Philippine robber-raid henroost raid, 
do not shirk your duty, do not fail of loyalty, lest you win and deserve the reproach of being a “patriot.”

The majority is always in the wrong.

Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.

A telling difference separates these two discussions of similar issues. In the conversation with his friend, Twain suggests the living can express only a partial truth, while the dead enjoy the freedom to express it in its entirety. Truth can be told but only by the dead. Despite his angry tone, Twain remains confident. He has told “the whole truth” in “The War Prayer” and looks forward to posthumous vindication, because the sketch will be published and presumably understood after his death. In the diary entry, Twain shifts emphasis, revealing the assumptions that underpin his more temperate remarks to his friend. Twain’s diary describes his fellow citizens as unredeemable. His defense of free speech shifts into a sweeping denunciation: the majority are “always in the wrong,” regardless of who speaks the truth. While “The War Prayer” rejects the possibility of persuasion, Twain’s diary ridicules the very idea. In it Twain expresses an unqualified stance: “The minority is always in the right,” and “The majority is always in the wrong” (my italics). Ultimately Twain does not define persuasion as an admirable but futile goal; it is reprehensible. Because an idea’s popularity discredits it, if enough citizens accept an idea, it must be wrong. “Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority,” Twain observes, “it is time to reform.” Instead of working to change his fellow citizens’ views, Twain seeks their disapproval.

Twain’s views of patriotism have enjoyed a remarkable afterlife, especially given their obscurity during his life. “The War Prayer” and the diaries remained unpublished during Twain’s life and the genres they employ—allegory and diary entries—typically attract small readerships. After September 11 and especially since the start of the current war in Iraq, “The War Prayer” has circulated widely on the internet. Suggesting why, the editor of one website introduced Twain’s sketch:

In troubled times it can be instructive to look to the past for inspiration. So in these days when frenzied flag-waving is equated with patriotic virtue, we here at the Infinite Jest look to that Tree of Bitter Fruit in the garden of American letters: Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. . . . seems particularly applicable today—alas!—and so here it is, presented on the Modern Internet.

An editor typically praises the work he posts, but this editor also laments its continued relevance. “Alas!” he exclaims after praising “The War Prayer” as “particularly applicable today.” This interjection criticizes the contemporary moment, suggesting that the editor wished we had progressed beyond the situation that Twain explores. Shifting emphasis, he introduces an ambivalent metaphor to describe Twain and his influence. Instead of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, Twain represents American literature’s “Tree of Bitter Fruit,” a harsh, distasteful wisdom from which we continue to eat.

Indeed, Twain’s view of patriotism has grown increasingly familiar. Many observers defined the Vietnam War as the moment when American patriotism lost much of its credibility and attractiveness.The cultural and literary critic Andrew Delbanco, for instance, describes “the post-Vietnam irony that we now bring to all pronouncements of high national purpose.” Lamenting the “lost” “conception of a common destiny worth tears, sacrifice, and maybe even death,” Delbanco portrays patriotism as a largely discredited notion:

Patriotism, some say, persists in the “heartland” (wherever that mythic region may now be), but among people of “advanced” views it has lost respectability as surely as did traditional religion in Emerson’s day.

Delbanco decries the lack of a shared purpose, but his language betrays a related irony, a certain incredulity that some Americans actually think of themselves as patriotic. The philosopher Richard Rorty also names the Vietnam Era as the turning point, but draws a different conclusion. Following a conventional understanding of the period, Rorty describes how the reform Left gave way to the harsher, more confrontational New Left whose members eschewed hopeful visions of American aspiration. Instead of tripping a villain’s heel, the flag symbolized atrocities at home and abroad. Disheartened by this shift, Rorty chastises fellow American leftists for disdaining any demonstrations of national pride. “National pride,” he observes, “is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.” Rorty urges a patriotism that inspires citizens to better their country, not a hopelessness that views it as unredeemable. Patriotism need not promote xenophobia, jingoism, or militarism; it might contest such values, defining, for instance, “the struggle for social justice as central” to “the country’s moral identity.” Instead of rejecting patriotism, Rorty urges fellow leftists to propose more persuasive versions, to tell “inspiring stories” that encourage America to act more humanely.

What, then, would a fuller account of patriotism look like? Writing more than a century after Twain’s bitter comments, Philip Roth fictionalizes the divide widened by the Vietnam War in his novel The Plot Against America. He imagines that Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency of the United States, defeating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election. According to this scenario, Lindbergh campaigns against America entering the approaching Second World War. He blames the Jews for the war, preaching an anti-Semitic isolationism in what the novel calls his “high-pitched, flat, midwestern, decidedly un-Rooseveltian American voice.” As the novel unfolds, it reveals that Lindbergh participates in a fascist plot against America, supported by Germany. The novel witnesses these developments from the perspective of a working-class, Jewish family from Newark, the narrator, a third-grader named “Phil Roth.”

Early in the novel, the Roths vacation in Washington, DC, shortly after Lindbergh’s inauguration, deeply unnerved by the election. A local tour guide—whom the boy respectfully calls “Mr. Taylor”—takes them to the Lincoln Memorial, which fills the family with a sense of awe:

Mr. Taylor warned us that the Lincoln Memorial was like no other edifice anywhere in the world and that we should prepare ourselves to be overwhelmed. Then he accompanied us from the parking area to the great pillared building with the wide marble stairs that led us up past the columns to the hall’s interior and the raised statue of Lincoln in his capacious throne of thrones, the sculpted face looking to me like the most hallowed possible amalgamation—the face of God and the face of America all in one.

Gravely my father said, “And they shot him, the dirty dogs.”

The four of us stood directly at the base of the statue, which was lit so as to make everything about Abraham Lincoln seem colossally grand. What ordinarily passed for great just paled away, and there was no defense, for either an adult or a child, against the solemn atmosphere of hyperbole.

“When you think of what this country does to its greatest presidents . . .”

“Herman,” my mother pleaded, “don’t start.”

Other tourists visiting the monument take offense at Herman Roth’s thinly veiled criticism of Lindbergh. Walking away, one man calls Herman “a loudmouthed Jew,” and the man’s elderly mother adds, “I’d give anything to slap his face.”

This comic interaction presents a complex view of history. It begins by evoking a grave, exaggerated reverence for “History” with a capital H, what Phil called “the solemn atmosphere of hyperbole.” Lincoln represents not just one man but a collection of virtues and powers, divine and national, “the most hallowed possible amalgamation—the face of God and the face of America all in one.” Herman Roth’s guttural pronouncement—“Gravely my father said, ‘And they shot him, the dirty dogs,’”—disrupts the quasi-religious serenity at the monument. The sentence mixes the respectful and insulting, starting with “Gravely,” and ending with “dirty dogs.” The father lacks a sophisticated knowledge of history; he would strain to talk about Lincoln’s life in any detail. The novel, though, shows him to be right: right about Lindbergh and the dangers he represents. As in his speech, the father is indelicate but courageous.

This alternative history shares with Roth’s other historical novels a certain nostalgia for the Newark of the author’s childhood. This nostalgia for a place mingles with the nostalgia for an idea: the old-fashioned patriotism that the father expresses, a feisty, impolite, and embarrassing devotion, intensified by fear. As in the verbal confrontation staged at the Lincoln Memorial, this patriotism contests an uglier version: the homegrown fascism that the other family supports. In this respect, the father offers a patriotic argument against America’s least attractive impulses.

Twain’s example clearly illustrates that the left’s struggle with patriotism preceded the Vietnam War. For Twain, the Spanish-American War formed a breaking point. If the Vietnam War exerted a similar pressure on later generations, it is helpful to recognize the particular drama that the American left repeats, as its members’ distaste for “frenzied flag-waving” converts suspicion into hostility. In both cases, war hastens this change, as its critics struggle to appreciate patriotism’s difficult virtues.

Instead of viewing the New Left as an aberration, we might recognize its continuity with earlier progressives such as Twain and understand how this harsh skepticism places even moderate candidates at a disadvantage. In a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, 94.5 percent of Americans define themselves as somewhat patriotic, of those 72.7 percent defined themselves as very or extremely patriotic. Only 5 percent said they were “not especially patriotic.” A comparative study confirms what these figures suggest: that Americans feel intense national pride. Such demographics favor conservative candidates because they inherit a vocabulary to address such voters. John Kerry, for instance, witnessed firsthand the “battles,” “agonies,” and “blood” that Whitman said “condense” “a Nationality.” Kerry had been wounded in the war his opponent avoided. Yet he struggled to present himself as “patriotic.”

Lorrie Moore’s arresting story “The Juniper Tree” captures the stunned disbelief that many Kerry supporters felt after the election, after their candidate’s projected strengths turned into vulnerabilities. Puzzled by the results, the residents of a college town cannot understand how fellow citizens see their country so differently. A trivial interaction leads to an overheated question. “A pickup truck with the bumper sticker ‘No Hillary No Way’ roared past us,” the story’s narrator reports, “and we stared at its message as if we were staring at a swastika. Where were we living?” The quick image, outlined in symbols, presents a familiar condemnation. Just as countless rightwing partisans call political opponents “Communists,” too often leftists reflexively condemn those they disagree with as “fascists” or “Nazis.” Moore’s simile repeats this exaggeration down to the requisite “pickup truck,” then questions it. It reports the two friends’ reactions then suggests that the association of the bumper sticker with the swastika reveals more about the speaker’s despair than the other driver’s political beliefs. The simile functions as a momentary shift in perspective, a brief reflection on a habitual train of thought. It demonstrates how tone generates ideas, as the speaker’s despairing language invites the dismissive comparison, the routine sneer.

In a hallucinatory moment, the speaker performs a song for a friend who recently died:

“Well, I guess it’s my turn,” I said. “It’s been a terrible month. First the election, and now this. You.” I indicated Robin, and she nodded just slightly, then grabbed at her scarf and retied the knot. “And I don’t have my violin or my piano here,” I said. Isabel and Pat were staring at me hopelessly. “So—I guess I’ll just sing.” I stood up and cleared my throat. I knew that if you took “The Star-Spangled Banner” very slowly and mournfully it altered not just the attitude of the song but the actual punctuation, turning it into a protest and a question. I sang it slowly, not without a little twang. “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Then I sat down. The three of them applauded, Isabel clapping her thigh.

“Very nice,” said Robin. “You never sing enough,” she added. Her smile to me was effortful and pinched. “Now I have to go,” she said, and she stood, leaving Pat’s painting behind on the chair, and walked into the lit hallway, after which we heard the light switch flick off, and the whole house was plunged into darkness again.

The same words sung differently gain a new identity. For this reason, the Spanish translation of the national anthem raises great passions, because the shifted context changes the anthem’s inflections, histories, and associations, though the words’ literal meanings remain basically the same. In Moore’s story, a performance transforms a bombastic, militaristic anthem into “a protest and a question,” a moment that evokes the potential for change. Quickly, though, the scene returns to the usual despair. The dreamscape fades to silent gloom, a lament, not a transformation.

To escape this melancholy, both Rorty and Delbanco propose that we develop better stories. I propose, perhaps more fancifully, a song. On February 13, 1982, Marvin Gaye performed the national anthem for the NBA All Star game. As Gaye approached the microphone, the drum track confused the public address announcer who thought, “Man, they brought the wrong cassette. . . . He’s going to start singing ‘Sexual Healing’ instead of the anthem.” Gaye’s slow, soul-inflected version evoked his hit song, but he remained suggestive and understated, seductive but not vulgar. As if drawing from his troubled personal life, his voice expressed mature desire, a desire to transcend the heartbreak and betrayal it acknowledged. As Gaye clasped his hands in front of himself or raised them into the air, his singing made the otherwise unlovable anthem seem not only sexy but gentle. At first a few in the crowd booed; many more started to clap and holler. A call-and-response developed; “very churchlike,” an audience member later called the atmosphere. Caught by a television camera, Pat Riley, the Laker’s coach, stopped grimly chewing his gum as if chastised, realizing how disrespectful he looked. As Gaye approached the song’s concluding lines, he slowed them down, recasting “free” and “brave,” testing how they might sound and what they might mean. He turned bombast into meditation. “He was grooving on the gospel aspect,” his biographer observes, “how he was able to juxtapose patriotism with spiritualism and sexuality with spirituality.” Twain’s descendents, those who oppose the most popular definitions of patriotism and America itself, might take Gaye’s version of the national anthem as their signature song, starting and ending all their political rallies and gatherings. They might appeal to patriotism’s eros, developing a call-and-response between what we are and might be.


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