Once again Independence Day (or “The Fourth of July” as many still call it) is upon us. It’s that most American of national holidays, a time for picnics, parades, fireworks and patriotic songs. We go camping, take in a movie, take advantage of the special sales at the malls, get together with friends and family, and make sure we eat such “American” food as hamburgers, hot dogs and apple pie. And maybe, just maybe, we give a thought to what it all means while we watch the fireworks dancing in the night sky. Something to do with the birth of our nation, right?
This year there is a heavier feel to this usually festive holiday. There is a division among the people of this Union. A very deep one. On a day that is supposed to remind us of our identity as a nation, the weight of political ideologies and cultural differences rend that identity like an old flag. Can anything be done?
Being the Old Book Junkie, I was going through some of my books on American folklore this morning. One that I particularly like, “American Folklore and Legend,” (The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1978), has an introductory article by Horace Beck, who was Professor of American Literature at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. In his remarks, I think, we can find both a partial reason for the divide and a path to lead our nation back onto a common road again:
Americans, more than most other people, have always sought a sense of identity. Among nations whose origins go back thousands of years, the search for identity is not difficult, but to us it is, for we are a society composed of many national; backgrounds, many languages, many customs. . . Yet we all wish to be recognized as “Americans.”
In most countries tradition, based to a very large extent in folklore, history, and geography, has grown up over the centuries. Unfortunately, the U.S. is too young a country, and its inhabitants too diverse in character and too much on the move, for a folk tradition of the Old World type to have grown up.
Perhaps it’s time we started to re-tell America’s unique folktales and legends, both to ourselves and our children. Even more, maybe it’s time for our schools to require their students to read more of classic American writers such as Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry W. Longfellow, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Allen Poe, to name but a few.
I think it’s time for an American Canon of national literature. We need stories that can bring us together as a people rather than ideological narratives that divide us. Putting such a canon together could be a national project that itself might get us communicating and working together. Our country has a treasury of stories, poetry and essays hidden in libraries and schools, barely noticed or mentioned for years. It’s past time for them to see the light of our classrooms once more.
Horace Beck, in concluding his introduction, writes about “uncovering the foundation of our shared sense of national unity.” It’s 35 years since he wrote those words and we’re rapidly running out of time to find it.