America was Promises

Although MacLeish apparently rejected Communism, his long poem “America Was Promises” published in 1939 certainly seems to advocate that common Americans claim their rightful heritage, the promise of America, no matter what it takes to do so.

Although this long poem often soars into a Whitmanesque vision of an ideal America, what seems most remarkable about it is the use of the past tense in the title and the suggestion near the end that it is no longer possible to just await the American dream, we must take it “brutally.”

The poem begins with a simple restatement of the dream, a statement made necessary, perhaps, by losing sight of that dream:

Who is the voyager in these leaves?
Who is the traveler in this journey
Deciphers the revolving night: receives
The signal from the light returning?

America was promises to whom?

Although it seems a little surprising that he needs to ask who were the promises made to, it becomes clear later in the poem why he does so.

He briefly reiterates the reasons people came to America:

East were the
Dead kings and the remembered sepulchres:
West was the grass.

And all beautiful
All before us

America was always promises.

Clearly, he distinguishes between the ordinary people who came to America and the royalty, with their privileges, that they left behind. In some ways his description is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s vision of America in The Great Gatsby, where the American Dream is seen as a “green light, the orgiastic future.”

MacLeish answers the question “to whom” by pointing to Jefferson:

Jefferson knew:
Declared it before God and before history:
Declares it still in the remembering tomb.
The promises were Man’s: the land was his –
Man endowed by his Creator:
Earnest in love: perfectible by reason:
Just and perceiving justice: his natural nature
Clear and sweet at the source as springs in trees are.
It was Man the promise contemplated.
The times had chosen Man: no other:

Clearly the promises were the promises of a Jeffersonian democracy where men were equal, and all had the potential to attain “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to MacLeish, it is this vision that promoted the Declaration of Independence:

And Man turned into men in Philadelphia
Practising prudence on a long-term lease:
Building liberty to fit the parlor:

While that may well be an oversimplification of what went on in Philadelphia, where a careful balance was being struck between the common man and the wealthy class, it is the dream that helped to inspire colonists to join the cause.

MacLeish sees this dream of equality, of Jeffersonian democracy, being usurped by the aristocracy:

And the Aristocracy of politic selfishness
Bought the land up: bought the towns: the sites:
The goods: the government: the people. Bled them.
Sold them. Kept the profit. Lost itself.

According to MacLeish, America is in danger of becoming what it had left behind, a country dominated by an aristocratic class that ruled by means of its wealth.

In this light, MacLeish seeks a new answer to the American Dream and strangely enough finds that answer not in America’s history but in that of several foreign countries:

We do not ask for Truth now from John Adams.
We do not ask for Tongues from Thomas Jefferson.
We do not ask for justice from Tom Paine.
We ask for answers.

And there is an answer.

There is Spain Austria Poland China Bohemia.
There are dead men in the pits in all those countries.
Their mouths are silent but they speak. They say
"The promises are theirs who take them."

It seems ironic that MacLeish would choose these countries to provide the answer, and my history is not good enough to know for sure what all of them had in common, but my best guess is that they all, like Spain and Bohemia, revolted to attain freedom and failed in that attempt, suppressed by fascist leaders. In other words, if Americans do not take action, they, too, will lose the freedoms their fathers fought for, lose those freedoms to a ruling class, an aristocracy of business and social class that dominates through their wealth.

The poem ends on a near-revolutionary note:

Listen! Brothers! Generation!
Companions of leaves: of the sun: of the slow evenings:
Companions of the many days: of all of them:
Listen! Believe the speaking dead! Believe
The journey is our journey. Oh believe
The signals were to us: the signs: the birds by
Night: the breaking surf.

America is promises to
America is promises to
To take them
With love but
Take them.

Oh believe this!

If MacLeish’s vision of America is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s, his solution to the problem is similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where workers have to join together and take action to preserve their freedom. If the World Book Encyclopedia is to be trusted, writers became the voice of a disillusioned public whose very beliefs had been challenged by the Depression.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, left millions of workers jobless. But it also changed the attitude of many Americans toward the labor movement. Before 1929, most people regarded business executives as the nation’s leaders and union members as dangerous radicals. But people lost faith in business leaders after business could not relieve the depression. Many Americans began to believe the way to fight the slump was to increase the purchasing power of wage earners. The political climate changed from one favoring management to one favoring labor.

Apparently such beliefs have been forgotten in the relatively prosperous times of recent years where labor and unions have fallen out of favor and some say that the only role of the government is to unfairly tax its hard-working citizens.

Don’t Call Me Comrade

It’s obvious that MacLeish’s poetry between 1936 and 1939 was heavily influenced by the Great Depression. Though he seemed to embrace the worker’s movement, his poetry rejected the kind of brotherhood being promoted by the Communist Party as shown in “Speech to Those who Say Comrade:”


The brotherhood is not by the blood certainly,
But neither are men brothers by speech – by saying so:
Men are brothers by life lived and are hurt for it.

Hunger and hurt are the great begetters of brotherhood:
Humiliation has gotten much love:
Danger I say is the nobler father and mother.

Those are as brothers whose bodies have shared fear
Or shared harm or shared hurt or indignity.
Why are the old soldiers brothers and nearest?

For this: with their minds they go over the sea a little
And find themselves in their youth again as they were in
Soissons and Meaux and at Ypres and those cities:

A French loaf and the girls with their eyelids painted
Bring back to aging and lonely men
Their twentieth year and the metal odor of danger.

It is this in life which of all things is tenderest –
To remember together with unknown men the days
Common also to them and perils ended:

It is this which makes of many a generation –
A wave of men who having the same years
Have in common the same dead and the changes.

The solitary and unshared experience
Dies of itself like the violations of love
Or lives on as the dead live eerily:

The unshared and single man must cover his
Loneliness as a girl her shame for the way of
Life is neither by one man nor by suffering.

Who are the born brothers in truth? The puddlers
Scorched by the same flame in the same foundries,
Those who have spit on the same boards with the blood in it.’

Ridden the same rivers with green logs,
Fought the police in the parks of the same cities,
Grinned for the same blows, the same flogging,

Veterans out of the same ships, factories,
Expeditions for fame: the founders of continents:
Those that hid in Geneva a time back,

Those that have hidden and hunted and all such –
Fought together, labored together: they carry the
Common look like a card and they pass touching.

Brotherhood! No word said can make you brothers!
Brotherhood only the brave earn and by danger or
Harm or by bearing hurt and by no other.

Brotherhood here in the strange world is the rich and
Rarest giving of life and the most valued,
Not to be had for a word or a week’s wishing.

Perhaps it is, indeed, hardships, “hunger and hurt,” that bring men together for people seem more likely to have empathy for each other precisely when times are most difficult. People in the 30’s certainly seemed to have more of a sense of community than people do today. Perhaps it’s not entirely irrelevant that when I was a paperboy I was always surprised that I got the biggest tips from my poorest, least demanding customers while wealthy customers seemed to content to demand the most service.

Judging from some of the greatest literary works of the Depression, MacLeish is correct when he suggests that “Hunger and hurt are great begetters of brotherhood.” Perhaps, this explains why my Mother’s parents always left food on the back porch during the Depression. Since her father had a steady job as a postman, he felt he had to share with those who could not find work.

Being a soldier in Vietnam made me closer to my men than I have ever been to anyone except my children or my wife. I would have died for any one of them, and I suspect that they would have done the same for me. Nearly forty years later, I still long to see those in my platoon again. MacLeish seems correct that it was precisely this war and all the dissension that it brought that tied my generation together, just as World War II brought together an earlier generation.

Those who work in dangerous, tough industries, like the steel “puddlers” scorched by the flames of the kilns, the loggers, the workers beaten by the police during strikes are truly brothers of shared hardship.

But “no word said can make you brothers.” Calling someone comrade does not make them your brother. You have to earn that privilege.

A Saving Grace

Last year as I hunted for a “Christmas poem” I was surprised by the dearth of such poems in my rather extensive collection of poetry. Of course, right after Christmas I was reading Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems and was immediately struck by the following poem, which, to me, seemed to reflect man’s condition here on earth:

To Christ Our Lord

The legs of the elk punctured the snow’s crust
And wolves floated lightfooted on the land
Hunting Christmas elk living and frozen;
Inside snow melted in a basin, and a woman basted
A bird spread over coals by its wings and head.

Snow had sealed the windows; candles lit
The Christmas meal. The Christmas grace chilled
The cooked bird, being long-winded and the room cold.
During the words a boy thought, is it fitting
To eat this creature killed on the wing?

He had killed it himself, climbing out
Alone on snowshoes in the Christmas dawn,
The fallen snow swirling and the snowfall gone,
Heard its throat scream as the gunshot scattered,
Watched it drop, and fished from the snow the dead.

He had not wanted to shoot. The sound
Of wings beating into the hushed air
Had stirred his love, and his fingers
Froze in his gloves, and he wondered,
Famishing, could he fire? Then he fired.

Now the grace praised his wicked act. At its end
The bird on the plate
Stared at his stricken appetite.
There had been nothing to do but surrender,
To kill and to eat; he ate as he had killed, with wonder.

At night on snowshoes on the drifting field
He wondered again, for whom had love stirred?
The stars glittered on the snow and nothing answered.
Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north,
The pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.

While I don’t necessarily consider myself a “Christian,” I certainly empathize with the dilemma of the poet caught between the desire for a sacred world and an imperfect world where man is forced to kill to survive.

The opening stanza presents a chilling image of a world where only the fittest survive and where death haunts the earth. In such a world killing is a necessary part of the celebration of life itself.

And the boy, being the one who had killed the bird that provides the feast for the Christmas dinner, wonders whether the act of killing in and of itself negates the “grace” prayed for before the meal, “the grace [that] praised his wicked act.”

The boy’s only hope is that his “wonder” at having “to kill and to eat” somehow transcends the very act of killing. Like the Indians who believed that one had to satisfy the soul of the animals they had killed, the boy seems to be asking for the bird’s forgiveness.

Perhaps in this imperfect world all that we can hope for is that our prayers for forgiveness and for more perfect selves, our celebration of the love that is our only hope for redemption, can somehow redeem us.

Merry Christmas

Despite all the turmoil, as usual everything got done just in time .

I even had time to finish my famous Santa Claus cookies, nearly a 60 year family tradition now. One of my earliest Christmas memories is of biting the head of a Santa Claus cookie and breaking out in tears because I thought I had destroyed Santa.

I started making decorated cookies longer ago than I can remember. Of course, at first I was only allowed to decorate trees. Later, though, after I had mastered the art of both green and white trees, I was allowed to decorate Santa Clauses.

With the exception of the year I was in Vietnam (somehow it didn’t seem appropriate for a heavy mortar platoon leader to be making Santa Claus cookies), I’ve never missed a year, including last year when I couldn’t eat a single, damn cookie.

Strangely enough when I was little the cookies just seemed like nothing more than a prelude to the gifts, but now they’ve become more important than the presents.

Hopefully in a year or so I’ll be able to get Gavin started making Christmas trees .