Given the length of The Grapes of Wrath, I’m likely to have a few opportunities to read and reflect on the poetry of 1940, so for today I’m branching out a little farther into the forgotten poets of this era than I might otherwise do. In 1940, an American suffragette named Alice Duer Miller, with a reasonably long career as a writer of novels and screenplays, published a novel in verse entitled The White Cliffs. The book tells the story of an American woman who marries an Englishman, and is widowed by the First World War—she remains in England, and as the book ends she fears for her adopted country, and for her English son who wants to go, like his father, to war. I can’t claim that I think most of The White Cliffs is particularly good poetry, although as pro-English propaganda, published during that portion of World War II where England stood largely alone against the Axis powers (and America sat idly by), the novel is alleged to have had a meaningful impact on the increasing willingness of the otherwise isolationist American middle class to contemplate going to war. Anyway, there are moments where the verse works well enough for me to want to reflect on it, and here on this final weekend of the London Olympics, it seems fitting for me to think a little bit about England and Englishness, with Miller as a guide. Here is a sonnet from The White Cliffs, section XXI of that novel:
“The English love their country with a love
Steady, and simple, wordless, dignified;
I think it sets their patriotism above
All others. We Americans have pride—
We glory in our country’s short romance.
We boast of it, and love it. Frenchmen, when
The ultimate menace comes, will die for France
Logically as they lived. But Englishmen
Will serve day after day, obey the law,
And do dull tasks that keep a nation strong.
Once I remember in London how I saw
Pale shabby people standing in a long
Line in the twilight and the misty rain
To pay their tax. I then saw England plain.”
I was especially drawn to this poem because it contemplates patriotism, something I’ve been wrestling with for a while in my musings about America and what our literature reveals about us. The Olympics have been another opportunity for me to encounter patriotism—both American and English. To name only two media accounts that caught my eye this last week, first off, I saw a clip from Fox News in which the hosts complained that people don’t shout “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as much as they used to at the Olympics, which to them seemed a troubling sign of America’s impending doom as a culture and nation (I paraphrase, of course…but I’ll admit to being at least a little surprised at how seriously they took an issue that feels more like an Onion article to me). Then I read an article just today about the BBC, whose director instructed the team covering the Olympics to be sure not to fixate too much on the events where British athletes were likely to medal, but to cover important achievements in sport no matter what nations were involved. These are extreme examples, of course—not every American pumps their fist about gold medals, and not every British citizen is self-effacing. But I wonder if Miller was, in fact, on to something when she suggests a simple contrast between the countries. The Americans have pride, she says, and the British have duty.
She makes no secret of her preference (or rather, her character’s preference) for the British approach, as she describes it. As a self-confessed Anglophile (though hopefully not a pretentious one), I understand the tendency of a certain kind of American personality to praise something we feel was lost in our country’s separation from Britain—national humility, perhaps, or the ability to endure great trials with quiet resilience. Despite the reality that I know is lost in this generalization, it’s hard not to think that there is something really right about it. When Mo Farah crossed the line, and London’s Olympic stadium erupted with joy, I didn’t hear anyone shouting “U-K! U-K!” (or “G-B! G-B!” for that matter). I know I have a few readers from the United Kingdom—would you agree with me that citizens of the U.K. would find that kind of thing pretty unthinkable? It’s certainly hard for me to envision. I was thinking about “U-S-A!” after seeing that piece on television, and I thought how odd it seemed. If Michael Jordan hits a three-pointer, I’m thinking it would be an incredibly dickish move for him to shout “Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” as he runs back down the court. If the crowd shouts it, though, I think we’d cut them slack. “U-S-A!” creates this weird problem, then—the people shouting it are shouting about the athletes and themselves. (I should note that we are not the only nation on earth to do this—I’ve heard “Ca-na-daaaa” shouted at international curling championships, though it’s usually shouted as a cheer during the match to express support, and not as a chest-bumping display of dominance after the team wins.)
I’ve steered this reflection into the world of athletics, but of course we have to acknowledge that Miller is writing it in a time of war, as a woman who remembers another world war in her youth—the character voicing these thoughts is even more personally affected by both wars than Miller is herself. This ode to duty, to obedience, to civic responsibility, takes place against the background of the London Blitz—if you’ve never read about the Blitz, you should. The stories are very moving, whether you read non-fiction accounts of the city’s survival, or one of the many books that are set in that time and place: my personal favorite, of course, is Connie Willis’s two-part novel, Blackout / All Clear, her magnum opus (although maybe not quite her best novel). In any case, Miller, through her character, is praising the qualities the British people discovered in themselves that—this cannot, I think, be overemphasized—saved Western civilization, saved the democratic experiment and the idea of freedom. It may be that, similarly pinned in a corner, any nation would have been able to sum up that kind of stoic and obstinate unwillingness to quit the field. All I can say is that I see and admire it in other nations, and I sincerely wonder if my country—a people sometimes seemingly united only in our hatred for each other—could do the same against such odds. There were beautiful glimpses of it in the fall of 2001, inspired (of course) by tragedy. Tragedy is not really the American experience, or maybe rather I should say that it is not our country’s narrative, not the story we tell ourselves as we drift to sleep each night. Our narrative casts us as the up-and-comer, the beacon of liberty, the victor over the despots of the world, the bringer of peace. There’s an important truth in each of those statements, but I hardly need tell you that this narrative is also seriously misleading about who we were and who we are. Every nation’s story is more complicated than that.
I haven’t said much about the language in Miller’s poem—for good reason, I think, since I really don’t feel the sonnet is well crafted (compare it to Millay’s from two weeks ago: the two women are not playing in the same league). But I do want to credit her for accomplishing, in a short space, some important rhetorical observations about national pride. The comparisons of pride to duty, of romance to logic to obedience, are telling even if overly broad. The closing image is an important one—in some ways I feel a lot of truth in what she says about that misty scene of the taxpayers’ line, although I wonder what that image obscures, what objects in the distance will grow fuzzy and indistinct if I focus in on that moment. I wonder what image I would use to characterize America honestly and positively—this nation of my birth that, despite the faults that dismay and anger me, I love and would defend. I only hope to avoid a boastful love. For my part, I’d like what Miller praises: to love America “with a love steady”, simple and dignified (though not wordless….wordlessness is a power I do not have). I’d welcome any thoughts you readers have, about America and about the United Kingdom, about patriotism and love of country (the same thing?). And of course thoughts about Miller’s poem as a poem, if you have them, especially if you think I was too dismissive of it. Certainly I’ll credit her with making me think.