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Jack Smith

It may seem that patriotism flourishes anew, but it has always lived in Norman Rockwell's America

November 28, 1985|JACK SMITH

Patriotism seems to be back in style, partly because of Ronald Reagan, and partly because, in a tense world, we take comfort in our unity and strength.

No nation is more chauvinistic than the French, with their Tricolor, their facile language, their faded memories of Napoleon's Grand Army, and their "Marseillaise."

But American patriotism, despite the warlike quality of our national anthem, is peculiarly sentimental, which makes it no less virulent.

It finds its truest expression not in the splendid military marches of John Philip Sousa, but in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, the illustrator who portrayed with such fidelity the root beliefs and myths of America.

Rockwell was the artist who best illustrated the values of America in the first half of this century--home, church, school, freedom, the town hall, apple pie, mother, and the girl next door.

As a schoolboy I sold the Saturday Evening Post from door to door, and as often as not a Norman Rockwell cover touched the heart of some woman-of-the-house and made her go fetch the precious nickel.

Now Viking has published a new collection of Rockwell paintings called "Norman Rockwell's Patriotic Times," edited by George Mendoza. Since Rockwell's works would seem to have been thoroughly exploited in seven previous volumes, it appears that the main reason for this one is a foreword purportedly written by President Reagan.

Whether the President actually wrote the foreword or not is irrelevant. It bears his signature, and presumably expresses his sentiments.

"The American people had tamed a continent, achieved prosperity, and secured peace for our Nation," it says. "They were a hard-working, churchgoing people, filled with spirit and faith. It was this America that Norman Rockwell so deeply loved. . . ."

Anyway, the foreword is in good company. To pad out the Rockwell illustrations, Mendoza has collected many of the patriotic messages of our history, whether in the form of presidential addresses, hymns, poems, essays or anecdotes.

At the outset we find the Pledge of Allegiance, with that late interpolation, "under God," which no doubt Rockwell approved of as much as Reagan.

We find plenty of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Stephen Vincent Benet; there is Woodrow Wilson's call to Congress for war on Germany, "with a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step"; John F. Kennedy's inaugural call to the nation to "ask not what your country can do for you"; Emma Lazarus' inscription on the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . ."); the story of how Francis Scott Key, a prisoner on a British warship shelling Baltimore, waited through the night for the tattered Stars and Stripes on Ft. McHenry to wave in the dawn; and also the full text of the poem he wrote, including happily unsung verses:

On the shore, dimly seen through the mist of the deep, Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes, What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep, As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses? As you probably know, Key's poem was set to a popular old barroom drinking song, and in time became our National Anthem.

We even find Elbert Hubbard's homely tract about the man who delivered the famous message to Garcia. His name was Rowan. When President McKinley wanted to send a message to Garcia, the elusive leader of the Cuban insurgents, someone told him Rowan could do it, and Rowan was sent for. He put the message in an oilskin pouch, placed it over his heart, and vanished into the Cuban wilderness. Two weeks later he emerged. The letter had been delivered. That, Hubbard said, was the kind of man America needed.

My father had Elbert Hubbard's books, and I read "A Message to Garcia" when I was a small boy. I have been carrying messages to Garcia ever since.

Rockwell's illustrations seem plain and homespun against all this pomp and passion, but he did have an eye for an America that is but a memory:

We see a GI home for Thanksgiving, sitting in the kitchen with his mother, helping her peel potatoes; we see a plain man standing in town hall, speaking his piece; we see a plump, muscular and confident Rosie the Riveter, eating a ham and cheese.

We see a young husband pointing to a newspaper picture of Thomas Dewey and berating his wife across a breakfast table, while she holds a paper opened to a picture of Harry Truman and sticks her lower lip out stubbornly. We see an earlier couple similarly divided over Cox and Harding.

Rockwell never left us in doubt as to what our boys were fighting for. We see a sailor snoozing in a hammock, dog in his lap; a soldier necking with his girlfriend in a train while a young girl peers wistfully at them over the seat ahead; a bemedaled soldier strides down the street escorted by a troop of make-believe kid soldiers; Rockwell's redheaded boy, grown up, comes home to a tenement with his duffel bag while his mother and father and sisters and brother rush out on the rickety porch and his girlfriend stands shyly around the corner against the wall.

There was no such sentiment when Johnny came marching home from Vietnam, and it has never been the same since.

Even so, something of Rockwell's America still lives.

It is present in Samuel Francis Smith's simple hymn:

My country, 'tis of thee, Sweet Land of liberty,

Of thee I sing. . . .

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