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Repairing the American soul

Posted By Jim Fletcher On 01/10/2012 @ 12:16 pm In Diversions,Front Page,Reviews,U.S. | No Comments

It can’t be a coincidence that I finished reading a wonderful new book, “What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song” just as a “news story” broke about a star high school football recruit changing his mind on attending a school as he made it known on Twitter. It’s possible that Twitter was made for narcissists (I have an account), and this young man proves it by actually changing his mind on a school based on what he said was a failure of his Twitter followers to take him seriously.

Amazing.

I mention that because this weird little story illuminates perfectly what the editors of “What So Proudly” – Amy Kass, Leon Kass and Diana Schaub – contend is wrong with our country. A now decades-long lack of education about the American character and national identity – what made us great for so long – is now lacking, severely. Needless to say, our Founding Fathers didn’t have access to social media, but it’s hard to imagine in any setting that George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass would act in such a manner as the young gridiron great. In fact, one could imagine Douglass boxing the chap’s ears.

The editors point out that citizenship is a matter of the heart as well as the mind. As our memories of these bedrock qualities from our national life fade from memory, we are left with the most grotesque forms of pride. America has become a reality show.

The opening line of “What So Proudly” sets the tone: “This is a book about America for every American.” Smartly done, the book’s editors utilize the one powerful literary device that has a chance of reaching our young people today: story.

From a soulful story by the great Willa Cather, in which an American expatriate living in Europe has an epiphany about his country’s greatness, to essays by discerning countrymen like Booker T. Washington and Thomas Jefferson, this thick volume is like a stable anchor stopping our national ship from going over the falls.

Boy, what a terrific book.

An aside: I love the way the editors maximize the book’s usefulness. For example, when introducing a story, they ask questions, but the answers must be supplied by the reader actually reading the material. Another beautiful element: The use of the more sublime material, such as Union officer Sullivan Ballou’s last, haunting letter to his Sarah, written a week before First Bull Run.

Certainly, much of the brick and mortar used in building America came from hard work, sacrifice and personal responsibility. These are qualities sorely lacking among much of the younger generations, who would benefit most from this book.

Besides the great stories that pass on moral truth, this book contains plenty of rich detail, such as an explanation of how our national seal came into being. Designed by Charles Thompson, secretary of the Continental Congress, the seal took six years, two committees and 14 men to come into being. Such detail about commitment to excellence is invaluable for young people today, many of whom think in terms of instant gratification.

A very sad story that illustrates this mentality comes from Ring Lardner’s 1929 short story, “Old Folks’ Christmas,” about a couple indulging their two very self-absorbed children. As they wait up all Christmas Eve until Ted and Caroline arrive, they reminisce about each Christmas past, when their children still enjoyed family. The younger members of this family are so self-centered, you’ll be (almost) shocked. And remember, to be fair to the current young people in our country, Lardner wrote this story between the World Wars!

For some readers, the Federalist Papers or George Washington’s farewell address are familiar. Yet probably to most readers, they will be new territory. That kind of historical material, without which it is impossible to really understand America, balances the short stories and vignettes explaining the origins of national songs, etc.

And no matter what one thinks of John McCain as a politician, we can hopefully agree that an excerpt from his “Why Courage Matters” is a nice selection for “What So Proudly We Hail.” It is a wonderful essay about Vietnam vet Roy Benavidez. The piece seems to tie our distant past with our present generations.

At a time when America is leaderless from the top, we simply must call back to the past to secure the future and plant the flag of American exceptionalism back into the soil. “What So Proudly We Hail” leads the charge.


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