“July Fourth 1934” ~ J.C. Leyendecker
While it’s possible my mother saw J.C. Leyendecker’s cover illustration for the July 7, 1934 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it’s certain that she celebrated that July 4th with her own mother.
It would have been one of the last celebrations they shared. In November of that year, my grandmother died: leaving my sixteen-year-old mother to care for three sisters, cope with the vicissitudes of life during the Great Depression, and bear what she perceived to be the shame of poverty.
She rarely talked about those years unless questioned. When I asked if she remembered anything from that last July 4th with her mother, she laughed and said, “I know there would have been watermelon!”
Then, as one memory led to another, she began to offer details.
There were flags everywhere. Everyone put out their flag. Sometimes, there was a parade, but even if there wasn’t a parade, there was a program on the town square. By the time it got dark, a neighbor — maybe one of the Weir boys? — would have had a little too much drink, and would start to sing. Everyone laughed and said, “Now it’s really the 4th. The boys are tuning up.”
Then, more serious, she added this:
Mom always told us to be proud of being Americans. There were plenty of Croats, Italians, Irish, Germans, Swedish in our town who’d talk about the Old Country, but none of them wanted to go back.
Everyone believed that, no matter how hard things got, we had the freedom to make them better, and no one wanted to give up that freedom.
Carl Sandburg’s book-length poem, The People, Yes, wasn’t published until 1936, so my mother never had the chance to study it in school. Whether she ever read it is uncertain. Today I read it often, appreciating Sandburg’s realistic and compassionate view of the American people. Each time I turn to the poem, I find something new to appreciate, and never fail to think of my own family.
Like my grandmother, Sandburg understood that pride in country is a virtue. Like my grandmother and mother, he clearly believed that, no matter how hard things get, people are capable of using their freedom to make them better. He’s a fine poet for this day, and a voice of wise counsel for this country.
The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”
The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
“They buy me and sell me…it’s a game…sometime I’ll
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother.
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
“Where to? what next?”