Norman Rockwell

Refugee Thanksgiving, Saturday Evening Post cover, November 27, 1943 Issue

I published this for Thanksgiving two years ago. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is not about getting anything. It is about appreciating all the things that are good in the world, all the people you love and who love you in return. And, I hope, it is about taking a moment to think about the world as it is, and wonder for a moment how I might do some little positive thing to make it better. I have a lot of new readers, and I want to offer this piece again. Most of the time when I re-read something of mine all I can think of is how to re-write it. Not this one. It is one of my favorites. May your Thanksgiving be filled with joy and peace.

I am fifty-six years old.  In all those years I have never been afraid of the place where I live.  I have never wakened with the thought that if I am not careful today, very careful, I may be killed.  I have never stood in a street as evening approached desperate to find a proper shelter before I freeze to death.  I have never doubted, even a little, that I will get something to eat.


Good for me.  But there are Americans who have experienced all those things.  Some experienced those fears in other countries, places from which they fled.  Some experience them every day right here, just a few miles away from my house.  But I am blessed and this does not happen to me.  This does not happen to most Americans.  We are almost all of us blessed in our safety, our prosperity, our luck.  We are living the American Dream.  And that has everything to do with how we look at something.  It colors our vision.

Our American Dream is illustrated by Norman Rockwell, at least for my generation.  We are not fools, of course.  We know that America was never really as much fun or as innocent or as schmaltzy as he made it seem in those delightful covers for the Saturday Evening Post.  He never claimed to be a serious artist like Hopper or Pollock, but I’m not even sure what that really means.  He is single-handedly responsible for some of our most cherished images of American life.  People who never heard of Marc Chagall can describe a Rockwell image in loving detail.  And get it right, too.  Another writer said something to the effect that the modern view of America and Americans was pretty much defined by Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell.  That may well be true.  If he colored our vision of ourselves, he did it with the best of intentions.  He shows honest affection and love for the people that inhabit his work.  He seems to regard Americans as a kind of miracle, and who could dislike a guy who thinks so well of us?

Rockwell did many Thanksgiving pictures over the years.  The one most of us think of wasn’t done for Thanksgiving, per se, but was part of his Four Freedoms series.  The series was inspired by an oration by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the images were titled Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want.  In Freedom from Want we see the kindly grandmother showing the grand, roasted bird to her admiring family as the grandfather stands behind her, waiting his chance to carve.  That’s our Thanksgiving image, tattooed in our national conscience.  This is our entitlement, or so we believe.  But note the careful language of these freedoms.  Want and Fear are things we must be freed from.  Somewhere within that language is recognition that Fear and Want are part of the predominant human condition.  There is a presumption that it is up to us, as visionaries, as Americans to change that.  To change it for everyone.  But Freedom from Want, the picture the PR types want us to look at, is not what I choose to review.  Instead I am looking at Refugee Thanksgiving which I think was closer to Rockwell’s heart.

The original painting for this is lost, which is not uncommon for Rockwell.  He did not fancy himself a great artist, and simply destroyed many of the originals once they were used.  It survives in prints and posters only as a cover.  We are looking at a young Italian girl in a dirty, decaying blue dress.  Her feet are wrapped in stiff cloth which she must wear instead of shoes.  Her Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1943, and there is a war on.  (The November 27 on the cover refers to the week of issue.)  She sits in the ruin of what once had been an important public structure.  Chunks of marble or granite from blasted columns lie about.  There is a broken manacle hanging from a stone wall.  The girl is draped in the overcoat of an American Army sergeant.  Balanced on her knee is a flimsy GI mess kit with a meager supper.  The girl’s hands are folded in prayer, and from the title we assume she is giving thanks for this meal and for her rescuers.

Those who dismiss Rockwell’s work often accuse him of sentimentality.  They say he is not an “honest” chronicler of events.  He goes for the easy tug of the heart strings.  Perhaps that is often fair, but I don’t think so here.  If he were going for sentimentality and the pro-American “message” he’d have surely posed this differently.  We’d see this (no doubt) gruff old sergeant handing her the food, or better yet, see him shamed into praying with her, one hairy eyebrow cocked as he peeks in secret to see if she is done.  That’s your Hollywood, baby.

I mean, that’s box office gold.

Instead, it is what it is.  Because I am a fifty-six year old American who has never known a day of real fear, of real hunger, of real deprivation, I see a young girl thanking God for her rescue by a benevolent soldier.  I am programmed by my life to think that way.  Rockwell knows this, but like any complicated, thinking human being he feels more than one way about war.  And so there is no soldier in this painting.  And someone else, someone from some rougher place where they don’t think Americans are all swell, might instead see a child who has scavenged warmth and food from a dead soldier’s things, and this child now thanks God for deliverance from her tormentor.  And that viewer might think this way because there is no soldier in this picture.  And the picture is what it is.  And how we see a thing, how we judge its rightness and meaning depends very much on who we are.  It is only when we take the trouble to really know each other as human beings that we get beyond this programming, and learn to borrow each other’s eyes.

And what do you suppose she prays for, really?  Does it matter whether she is the rescued or the oppressed?  She is a child of war, and I imagine she is mightily fed up with her life so far.  If we could really hear her, I don’t know that we’d hear a prayer of Thanksgiving at all.  It might  be more like, “Please God, make them just stop fighting. Everybody asks you to do that, and you never do it.  Please, for once just make them stop.”

She’d have better luck asking for shoes.

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2010.  And there’s a war on.

Update: Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012. And there’s a war on.

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