The Greatest Poem: Patriotism, America, and the Arts

March 4, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020
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Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Sir Walter Scott

Recently, I was thumbing through some books in my apartment when I came across a couple of novels by Kenneth Roberts.

Many years ago, I was obsessed for a while by Roberts’s historical sagas: “Arundel,” “Oliver Wiswell,” “Northwest Passage,” and other tales of America’s colonial and revolutionary period. Not only did I admire his style and storytelling skills—his knowledge of history was extensive, and he wrote as if he himself were living in the 18th century—but those books also reinforced pride in my country.

Epoch Times Photo
Kenneth Roberts’s “Rabble in Arms.”

As I skimmed the pages of his “Rabble in Arms,” wondering whether someday my grandchildren might enjoy these sagas, I started thinking of other writers I’d read who, like Roberts, celebrated America and patriotism.

Celebrants of America

Edward Everett Hale’s story “The Man Without a Country” leapt immediately to mind. In this 1863 short story, Army officer Philip Nolan, accused and convicted of treason, shouts: “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The court grants him his wish, sentencing him to live out his life on board different ships, where no one may speak to him of the United States or permit him to set foot on its shores.

Edward_E_Hale
Edward Everett Hale, an American author, historian, and Unitarian clergyman, best known for his story “The Man Without a Country.” (Public Domain)

When Nolan is an old man and dying, he invites a young officer to his quarters, which are decorated with all sorts of American memorabilia, and begs the man to take him through the history of his country since he first boarded a ship. The young man obliges. The last few passages of this story, particularly Nolan’s written request that his memorial marker bear this epitaph—“He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands”—left me misty-eyed when I read those words in high school.

A short list of other favorites would include the tale of Irish immigrants in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Thomas Wolfe’s fulsome descriptions of America in “Of Time and the River,” Michael Shaara’s account of the Battle of Gettysburg in “The Killer Angels,” and Esther Forbes’s “Johnny Tremain,” one of the great historical novels written for the younger set.

Artists other than writers have also saluted our country. What are the canvases of Norman Rockwell if not a scrapbook of his love for America and its people? The musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy” honors the life, patriotism, and music of early 20th-century composer, producer, and star of Broadway musicals George M. Cohan.

James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy
George M. Cohan (James Cagney) in one of his musicals that lauded America. Here Betsy Ross is featured sewing the original American flag, in “Yankee Doodle Dandy. (Warner Bros.)

Films like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “Saving Private Ryan” demonstrate American ideals: neighborliness, generosity, a fierce belief in democracy, and valor on the battlefield. Sculptures from the Lincoln Memorial to the statue of the Confederate soldier on the courthouse lawn here in Front Royal remind onlookers of the rich and complicated past of our country.

Should We Be Ashamed to Love Our Country?

Since the 1960s, our writers, artists, and cultural commentators have more often than not spent their energy and talent attacking America rather than praising it. They see its warts and blemishes, but rarely its beauty; they see America as a force of oppression rather than as a benefactor of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; they see its household as unexceptional, no different than any other in the world, and so are blind to the greatness of its estate, this extraordinary land where peoples from around the globe have gathered and thrived.

For these critics, patriotism is a dirty word, implying jingoism and superiority.

Perhaps worst of all, we who rise to our feet for the national anthem may have grown so accustomed to our unique country that we lack the eyes and wisdom to appreciate its many blessings. When we see the American flag flying from a pole in someone’s yard or from a public building, how many of us pause and offer thanks for our many freedoms? When we hear the anthem played at a ballgame, how many of us take a moment to think back on the American past, and to marvel at the creation of our liberties and the sacrifices of those who defended those liberties? How many of us feel shamed by the failings of our country, but forget to take pride in our successes and our attempts to rectify our flaws?

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“Freedom of Speech,” between 1941 and 1945, by Norman Rockwell. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (Public Domain)

Has such indifference and overt hostility to America and its ideals affected today’s arts and literature? Perhaps. We find snatches of the patriotic in such novels as Mark Helprin’s “Freddy and Fredericka,” particularly in the Prince of Wales’s speech to Americans near the end of the story. Country songwriters and pop musicians feel free to express patriotism in songs like Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American,” Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag,” and Jerrod Niemann’s “Old Glory.”

But if we look for examples of patriotism in the arts today, we have difficulty finding an Edward Everett Hale, a Norman Rockwell, or a George M. Cohan.

Pride

What happened?

Maybe we grew up, became sophisticated, and left patriotism in the nursery.

Or maybe not.

Instead, maybe our pride in being Americans has gone missing from long neglect. Or maybe our cultural critics have made some of us fearful and ashamed to step out of the shadows, and declare ourselves grateful for this land where we live.

Or maybe, just maybe, we still feel a deep love for our country and are looking for ways to express that affection.

I offer as evidence of that last claim President Trump’s massive political rallies with their loud and boisterous chants of “USA! USA!” In her online article “After Attending a Trump Rally, I Realized Democrats Are Not Ready for 2020,” Democrat Karlyn Borysenko writes of the Trump event that “the atmosphere was jubilant” and “more like attending a rock concert than a political rally.” This Democrat goes on to say, “With Trump, there was a genuine feeling of pride in being an American.”

The Greatest Poem

At my elbow as I write these words is a college textbook, “Modern English Readings,” used by my father in 1946 after he returned to Pennsylvania from fighting the Nazis in Italy. While browsing this book to see what Dad might have read long ago, I discovered an essay by Dorothy Thompson, once a famous journalist and a fervent opponent of fascism. The title of the essay is “America,” and though I have searched the internet, I find no trace of this piece there. This is too bad, for Thompson’s article, originally a speech, is a brilliant reminder of who and what we are as a people. In one paragraph of “America,” she reminds us of our literary heritage:

“Always this country has had its poets—and epic poets—moved by the grandeur of the country itself, its history, its possibilities, its titanism. Longfellow, who celebrated the trek of the Arcadians; the philosopher-poet Emerson, seeking to find this country’s over-soul; the anonymous ballad-makers of the ranges and mountains; Vachel Lindsay trying to catch this country’s broad rhythms … and the titan of all of them Walt Whitman, who wrote: ‘The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.’”

America is still the greatest poem, waiting to be explored and venerated by artists, writers, and the rest of us who possess the heart and mind to read, understand, and appreciate its verse.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.