What So Proudly We Hail:
The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song
edited by Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub
ISI, 790 pages, $35
Writing early in the fifth century a.d. to bolster the spirits of Christians in chaotic political times, St. Augustine asked: “As for this mortal life, which ends after a few days’ course, what does it matter under whose rule a man lives, being so soon to die, provided that the rulers do not force him to impious and wicked acts?” Coupling this devaluing of the political with a sharp critique of Roman pride in political rule, Augustine suggested that even the most honest of Roman historians praised Rome too highly. But how could they not, he asked, since they had no other and better city to praise.
Augustine was, however, far too penetrating a thinker not to see that more than this must be said. After all, the peace we so greatly desire and that falls so sweetly on the ear is in part the tranquillity provided by political order. And despite asking “What does it matter under whose rule a man lives?” Augustine was quite capable of distinguishing better from worse political communities. Indeed, while demythologizing the myth of Roman greatness, he was unable to withhold his admiration for ancient Roman greatness (even if motivated, of course, by a sinful love of glory).
It is both natural and right that human beings love the country that has nurtured them. God binds our hearts to particular places and people, and there are few things sadder than one who is simply a citizen of the world, feeling no particular loyalties. It is also natural and right that citizens should, in moments of danger to their shared way of life, be willing to sacrifice themselves for the well-being of the political community. Any Christian instructed by Augustine will need to set limits to—and tell a complicated story about—political loyalty, and I will return eventually to those complications. But if we feel no such loyalty it will not be because we have risen above our common humanity but because we have sunk beneath it.
What So Proudly We Hail is, therefore, a welcome achievement—rich and multilayered in ways that a treatise on patriotism could not be. It continually invites reflection on the nature of “America the Beautiful” and the difficulties of founding and sustaining a political community that, at least sometimes, also aims to be, in John Winthtrop’s words (which, it is important to note, are first of all Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount), “a city upon a hill.” One senses that this volume is for its editors not so much a scholarly project as a labor of love.
The collection of readings by American authors includes speeches, documents, letters, stories, and songs. These are gathered thematically under six main headings—national identity; the American creed; the American character; toward a more robust citizenry: the virtues of civic life; the goals of civic life; and making one out of many. The fourth and by far the longest of these headings (on the virtues of civic life) is itself divided into five sections treating: self-command and self-respect; law-abidingness and justice; courage and self-sacrifice; civility, tolerance, compassion; and public-spiritedness, charity, reverence. Although most readers are likely to dip in and out at different places, reading the volume from start to finish would provide a strong sense of its coherence.
Readers of anthologies generally like to quibble with editorial selections, whether of omission or commission. I can, however, find only one selection that I would not have included: General Patton’s “Speech to the Third Army” (under “courage and self-sacrifice”) on the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. Vulgarity in a good cause is nonetheless vulgarity, and—making all allowances for the special circumstances and acknowledging the greatness of Patton’s generalship—I still cannot find much in this selection to take pride in.
But how moving and thought-provoking are so many of the other selections. In their introduction the editors note that many stories have been included in the collection, and they comment especially on the power of stories as “a way of deepening time, by taking us to the profoundly humanizing truths contained in the ordinary surfaces of our experience.” This is certainly true of many of the stories they have chosen. “The Promised Land” by Mary Antin captures the immigrant’s sense of the promise of new possibilities in America. Henry James’ “Pandora” nicely displays the puzzlement a rather traditional German count experiences in the face of that new thing that is the self-command of the American woman. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin forces us to ask whether our prosperous common life may be built on the misery of others—and, if so, how we should respond. Wallace Stegner’s “The Traveler” evokes the power of compassion to see oneself in the face of another. In “A Jury of Her Peers,” Susan Glaspell invites us to ask whether legal justice and equity are quite the same thing—and does so in a way that would be hard to match in a scholarly essay on jury nullification. If both liberty and equality are central to the American character, neither is uncomplicated. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” forces us to think about what true individualism should mean, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron” invites reflection on the meaning of equality.
Not all the stories treat matters that are unique to American character and experience. We are, after all, not the only people who have thought about law-abidingness, about courage, civility, or public-spiritedness. Readers will need and want to keep this in mind. The way to love one’s country—to value American character—is to remember that others are likely in similar ways, if sometimes for different reasons, to love the stories of the place that has nourished them.
Despite such wonderful stories, for me some of the most powerful selections are speeches, essays, and memoirs. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, of course. But there are many others. In his blurb for the book, George Will calls attention to Calvin Coolidge’s speech commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Who of us knew any longer that this gem existed? “On an occasion like this,” Coolidge notes, “a great temptation exists to present evidence of the practical success of our form of government.” Much more important, however, he contends, are the “sources and causes”—the founding vision—that shaped the American way of life and government. Perhaps this volume will help us do what Coolidge recommends: to “think the thoughts which they [the founders] thought.”
Tom Wolfe’s depiction of Chuck Yeager’s striving to break the sound barrier; Lieutenant General John F. Kelly’s deeply moving account of the last six seconds of life of two young Marines (which illustrates the truth that self-sacrifice is the deepest mystery of life and which should be read by anyone who cannot understand how the horrors of combat may evoke some of the noblest human virtues); Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife Sarah, written shortly before the Civil War battle in which he was to lose his life—selections such as these capture something of the American soul. And to pair, say, Frederick Douglass’ “The Last Flogging” with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire” is to be reminded of the deepest problem that has marked our political life.
The title of this anthology, “What So Proudly We Hail,” comes, of course, from our national anthem. In the book’s last selection a number of our most well-known patriotic songs (“songs for free men and women”) are included. This is a very nice editorial touch, and I confess that I had not previously known that it was only in 1931 that, by an act of Congress, the Star-Spangled Banner was officially designated as our national anthem. Having now for the first time given that fact a little thought, I think that I rather regret the choice, though my regret has almost nothing to do with the obvious truths—noted by the editors—that the anthem is “hard to sing, hard to scan, and even hard to understand.”
“My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” which “served as our de facto national anthem” until 1931, captures rather better the many reasons—not just American freedom but also a sense of “place” and its sights and sounds—for devotion to one’s country. My first choice, though, would be “America the Beautiful.” It honors not only our founding but also the “pilgrim feet” that first blazed a “thoroughfare of freedom” on their errand into the wilderness. More important still, it acknowledges, if only indirectly, the Augustinian truth that our loyalties must always be divided. Its fourth and last stanza begins: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years / Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears.” This is not America the Beautiful.
St. Augustine would have assumed that an alabaster city undimmed by human tears could only be that City of God envisioned by the seer in the last book of the New Testament. The United States at its very best (and that best is very good, as the selections in this anthology demonstrate) cannot be that promised city but only, perhaps, an intimation of it. The very first reading in the very first section (“national identity”) in this book is Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without a Country.” I’m not sure how much this story is read any longer, though I recall having to read it when I was in grade school. The story is of a young man convicted of treason (as an accomplice of Aaron Burr), who, at his conviction, cries out that he never wants to hear of the United States again. And the judge sentences him to precisely that. He spends the remainder of his life aboard ships on which the crews are forbidden to breathe even a word in his presence about the United States. At his death a slip of paper is found in his Bible marking a passage from Hebrews (11:16): “They desire a country, even a heavenly; wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He hath prepared for them a city.” With this story at the very beginning of the anthology and “America the Beautiful” very near its end, readers can ponder for themselves the challenges of living with dual loyalties, as citizens of two commonwealths.
Early in the twentieth century, the British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice wrote a poem that begins: “I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above, / Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.” Sung to music by Gustav Holst, it has become a well-known hymn. The love vowed, the poem notes, never falters and may even make “undaunted the final sacrifice.” But the third and last stanza of the poem begins with the conjunction “and.”
And there’s another country,
I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her,
most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies,
we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart,
her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently
her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness,
and all her paths are peace.
This other country is “most dear” and “most great.” Loving it with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, we will be able to see and love our earthly country rightly and to appreciate as we should the American Soul in the story, speech, and song provided in What So Proudly We Hail.
Gilbert Meilaender, a member of the First Things advisory council, holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.