The Chronicle Review

Independence Day, Apart From the Fireworks

Pete Souza, The White House, Getty Images

July 05, 2002

Marveling at pyrotechnic spectacles and savoring the meaty odors wafting from our barbecue pits, Americans might easily overlook that the Fourth of July is as much a national literary occasion as it is a national political celebration. American literature, in fact, provides a needed antidote to the more familiar oratorical zeal that marks the day's celebrations. The surge of patriotism over the past 10 months may make the measured reflections on independence by the major writers in our history more pertinent now than ever before.

Taking the name "Independence Day" to heart, our writers repeatedly asked, "Independence from what?" "Independence for what?" "Independence for whom?" Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau inaugurated that tradition in the early 1850s, when growing antislavery sentiment began to goad Americans into treating our annual orgy of patriotism as more than an occasion for mass self-congratulation. Douglass's speech in Rochester, N.Y., in 1852, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," makes the most, rhetorically, of the ordinary pronoun "you": "This celebration ... is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom ... your nation," the work of "your fathers ... yours, not mine."

In lieu of celebration, Douglass instructs his "fellow citizens" to feel their shame. He obliges them to appreciate their happy holiday as "a day that reveals, ... more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty" that turns "your celebration" into "a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity."

Douglass builds to a warning that America's prospects "never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July." All that dark denunciation stands in contrast to the glimmer of grudging hope with which Douglass concludes -- his professed faith in "the genius of American Institutions."

Two years later, in Walden, Thoreau reminded his readers that even for Americans whose skin color exempted them from chattel slavery, the Fourth represented an unattained ideal, neither an occasion to celebrate nor an opportunity for self-congratulation. Twice in the book, he claims to have begun his Walden Pond sojourn on "the Fourth of July, 1845." Citing the Fourth to identify one's own destiny with our national destiny would later serve such popular-culture legends as George M. Cohan, Louis Armstrong, and the Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer. They all claimed to have been "born on the Fourth of July" (with the facts supporting only Cohan's claim).

Throughout Walden, the tics of Thoreau's style accentuate the gap between what America professes and what America has achieved, beginning with the reminder that Americans have managed so far to create only a "comparatively free country." In a sweeping challenge to his fellow Americans, Thoreau proclaims that "the greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad."

Such defiant qualifications chastened and chastised the enthusiasm and sense of Manifest Destiny that prevailed during the literary renaissance of the 1840s and '50s, when an unrivaled number of American classics were produced, including Emerson's "The Poet"; Hawthorne's two most durable novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables; Moby-Dick and Melville's other fiction; and the first book of distinctly, self-consciously American poetry, Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

The possibility that our professed patriotic sentiments might turn out to be what William James calls an "idle dream! pure Fourth of July fancy" became evident during our second reputed literary renaissance, between the world wars. Typical is William Carlos Williams's 1933 composition "4th of July," the very title of which accents abbreviation and limitation. This meditation on ship smoke and aggressive birds compresses the entire significance of Independence Day into a duel between loud fireworks and the faint sounds of two birds: "During the explosions / at dawn, the celebrations / I could hear / a native cuckoo."

Not qualitatively different from the other 364 days of the year, Independence Day for Williams ends "at dusk, before / I'd heard / a night hawk calling." Williams ends by muting the sounds of celebration with the timeless sounds of birds about their business, indifferent to the national hoopla.

In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald casts a darker shadow over the Fourth. In The Great Gatsby, he turns even the 19th century's wary national affirmation into weary elegy. Twice he cites the Fourth of July weekend as his narrative point of departure without ever mentioning Independence Day itself. The first date specified is July 5 in the eventful summer of 1922, the brief season that the novel recalls.

The action begins after the celebration. The promise of the independence that even Douglass anticipated everyone's achieving has passed. So has the hope of enjoying the vitality that Thoreau offered, through the crow of his cocky rooster alter ego "chanticleer." That vitality had faded, at least, from the novel's moneyed main characters. They first appear unable to rise from the couch in a mansion sitting room. Later, they find themselves perplexed over questions for which Douglass and Thoreau, along with most Americans, would have had countless answers: "What shall we do?" "What do people plan?" These moneyed predators end up killing off the happiness-pursuers whom Jefferson envisioned in the Declaration of Independence, seekers who fatefully idolize their enervated, richer social betters.

The archetype of avid climbing, Gatsby bleeds to death in his hard-won swimming pool because he took the rap for his lover. Daisy, the princess of the polo set, had run over and killed her husband's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, the ambitious wife of a Queens garage owner. Myrtle's last breath finds her "giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long." When Myrtle first appears in the novel she displays an "intense vitality ... converted into impressive hauteur."

By killing off uppity strivers -- interlopers whom his narrator calls the "lower orders" -- Fitzgerald assures (or cautions) readers that the display of such vitality in the pursuit of happiness never goes unpunished. Fitzgerald's uneasily preppy narrator concludes that the Fourth belongs to scrappy proles and new immigrant stock, as he watches a "grey, scrawny Italian child" preparing for the holiday by "setting torpedoes in a row along the railroad track."

Yet when immigrant children spoke for themselves -- narrated their own pursuit of happiness -- they were, like the escaped slave Douglass, less than eager to embrace the role assigned them by the likes of Fitzgerald's securely placed narrator. They proved reluctant to play avatars of vitality in Anglo-America's self-congratulatory spectacle.

A case in point is Jews Without Money, by Michael Gold. This popular and influential 1930 narrative about a turn-of-the-century Lower East Side boyhood (later banished from the canon because of Gold's unbending Communism) illustrates where the pyrotechnic immigrant ardor that Fitzgerald highlights leads.

Gold recalls the Fourth of July revelry of his childhood as a "debauch of patriotism," booming with "toy cannons ... revolvers ... Roman candles" that "popped red, blue and yellow balls at the sky." Around him, "pinwheels whirled, Catherine wheels fizzed and turned, torpedoes crackled, and rockets flew like long golden winged snakes above the tenements."

All this "fun," Gold's narrator recalls, resulted in his falling asleep midway through the display, soon to be violently awakened when a festive patriot "threw a lighted cannon cracker out of a window. It exploded on the pillow beside my face."

Then, Gold's alter ego recalls, "I trembled and sobbed, and saw my blood stream. A big slice of flesh had been torn from my left shoulder." Though the "shattered meat" around the scar "healed quickly," "what remained was the nightmare," leaving the boy waking "every night, with a scream" and "re-living the explosion." True to his stubbornly red colors, Gold here paraphrases, updates, and answers Douglass's 1852 question: "What to the immigrant child is the Fourth of July?" The answer: a permanent scar and a persistent nightmare.

The leftist '30s sensibility with which Gold has come to be identified provides the backdrop for the most monumental novel of midcentury America, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The narrator, an orator who models himself on Douglass and Booker T. Washington, draws on July Fourth imagery at his New York debut -- an impromptu eviction protest. He denounces a familiar demagogue for turning the proletariat's hopes and homey aspirations into a small, cracked-cymbal tinkle on the Fourth of July. By novel's end, however, the tinkling has turned explosive during a Harlem riot. Racing into the maelstrom, Ellison's hero recounts that the shooting sounded like the Fourth of July.

More recently, American writers have tended to take for granted the dark side of the Fourth and to treat the wounds and threats that many Americans routinely suffer as incurable, either by collective will or by the exertions of individual vitality. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison singled out a July Fourth picnic with mordant iconoclasm. The festivities, particularly a glimpse of a family cracking open a watermelon, disclose his own destiny to the incestuous rapist, Cholly Breedlove, who decides that he prefers the devil to God because "the idea of the devil excited him."

Meanwhile, Richard Ford probed this inversion of our national celebration in his 1995 novel, Independence Day (no relation to the motion picture of the same vintage). Set over a seemingly endless July Fourth weekend, Ford's narrative shows how its protagonist -- a divorced father, failed writer, and failing real-estate broker -- seeks to win back his estranged teenage son. With the narrator's struggle to recover his passion and integrity seeming to mirror our collective struggle to do the same, Independence Day concludes with its hero feeling his prospects improving -- determined to "do my best" -- and treating this "fine Independence Day" as an event to be, at best, endured.

In seeming contrast, Robert Lowell's mid-'60s account of watching a July Fourth parade in Maine begins on a patriotic upbeat: "Our Independence / Day Parade, all innocence / of children's costumes, helps resist / the communist and socialist." But within a few stanzas, the rhyming couplet recalls how "canned martial music fades / from scene and green -- no more parades!" In retrospect, most Americans can recognize how our Vietnam debacle, of which Lowell became a prominent protester, underlay the antimartial fading of our civic religion that Lowell evokes.

A still-growing body of post-Vietnam testimony illustrates the importance of the turn that Lowell observed. Ron Kovic's memoir, which moves from inherited patriotic fervor to solitary wheelchair-bound despair, reverberates most loudly with its ironically Cohan-esque title, Born on the Fourth of July. Another, more overtly literary, post-Vietnam testimony, "Speaking of Courage" in Tim O'Brien's 1990 story collection The Things They Carried, takes place one "fine Fourth of July." An idle, memory-haunted veteran, winner of seven combat medals, circles a lake near his prairie hometown. "Feeling safe inside his father's big Chevy," emblem of the safety and comfort he ought to but doesn't enjoy as an American and an intact survivor, the vet spends the entire story solitarily oscillating between flashing back on the war -- the dead -- and fantasizing about what he "would've said" but never could say about the war.

Finally, he shuns the public Independence Day observances in town. Instead, he watches from across the lake as his fellow citizens' fireworks confirm his own sense of the gap between what they want to believe and what he has come to know: "He stood up and folded his arms and watched the fireworks. For a small town, he decided, it was a pretty good show."

Russell Banks elaborates on this "good show" in his Rule of the Bone (1995). The narrator, Bone, is a teenage pothead fleeing an abusive stepfather while trying to return a runaway girl to her family. Seeing the fireworks from several towns, across two states, combine in the sky, this latter-day Huck Finn realizes that their significance exceeds the concerns of one nation, and that the blessings of liberty belong to everyone, especially those least able to secure them: "It looked like Star Wars or something, more like the birth of the planet than the nation with these supernovas going off and spreading out in circular waves of red and orange and purple and then boom-ba-booms in long spine-rattling chains."

Bone's thrill quickly fades. Instead of glory and liberty, he sees "chains" and "great draping clouds of smoke" that "hung down like gray rags." This meditation, which Banks spreads out over a dozen pages, concludes with Bone's turning back to his stepfather's "ugly thoughts" and his own consequent need to escape because all the stepfather "could hope was for me to be dead or gone forever." The ensuing flight takes Bone outside America, to Jamaica, and beyond the ugly thoughts that Independence Day stirs.

Neither novelist nor poet, the singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen is the American who has probably done more than anyone to spread such stories. Springsteen's rhetorical reliance on July Fourth as a measure of America's perennial promises and inevitable disappointments precedes his push, beginning with his 1984 album Born in the USA, to highlight the plight of Vietnam veterans. In the 1970s Springsteen framed two songs as July Fourth narratives. The first, "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," is a torch song.

What Springsteen does here, metaphorically counterpointing the artificial celestial pyrotechnics of the Fourth with troubled, even doomed Eros, seems in recent years to have become a literary commonplace. Consider, for example, one narrator in Andrea Barrett's story collection Ship Fever, winner of the 1996 National Book Award for fiction. For that narrator, an estranged wife in a 30-year marriage, watching fireworks becomes a futile attempt to heal her faltering marriage by sustaining an annual Fourth ritual. But all she feels is "the pace and intensity of the fireworks," the "final crash and then silence."

Less clueless than the husband and more tortured than Barrett's disheartened narrator, Springsteen's "Fourth of July" personae reluctantly face the ever-growing gap between public enthusiasm and personal constraint. Like Thoreau, Springsteen associates the utopian promises of American independence with a hope of personal salvation. Recalling that promise, his song evokes "the fireworks ... hailin' over" an amusement park, which he suggestively names "Little Eden." Springsteen's blue-collar persona looks to this Jersey Eden for a new dawning. The lyrics evoke how "the aurora is risin' behind us" and promises to light "our carnival life forever."

Yet, as with the "innocence" and "martial music," the passing of which Lowell mourns, promise also fades for this American optimist. Fired from his job for the Gatsby-esque and Douglass-like crime of not knowing his place -- for courting his boss's daughter -- the singer-persona announces that "the angels have lost their desire for us."

Against the Independence Day backdrop that Springsteen painstakingly renders, such an announcement not only bespeaks the singer's loss of innocence; it also alludes to our entrenched confidence that we can belong, friction-free, to an indivisible America while pursuing our dreams -- dreams like marrying the boss's daughter without fear of retribution, without hitting a class ceiling. From Irving Berlin in 1941 all the way back to John Winthrop in 1630, our bards and sages had always guaranteed our forebears that "God blesses America." In asserting the angels' apathy, Springsteen bids adieu to that certainty and echoes James Madison's caution in The Federalist, that men are not angels.

Four years after "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," Springsteen ratified this dispossession in "Independence Day." The refrain, "So say goodbye it's Independence Day," grows more prominent throughout the song and begins to sound like a goodbye to Independence Day and its promises. By telling listeners what to "say," the refrain also insists that what we say about ourselves as Americans constitutes the substance of what we are and have been, and what we may be -- all of which, the song concludes, "will just be swept away." Acknowledging that loss, Springsteen rebukes or at least curbs 200 years of rhetorical enthusiasm in the final verse: "Nothing we can say can change anything now."

James D. Bloom directs the American-studies program at Muhlenberg College and is the author of four books on American literary and cultural history. Section: The Chronicle Review Page: B10