Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#63, November 30, 1999


by Marylaine Block

As you fought your way home through clogged airports and highways, or as you baked pumpkin pies and stuffed the turkey, were you envisioning a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving -- a loving mother bringing the turkey to the table for an admiring father to carve, while tidy smiling children and beaming aunts and uncles looked on?

And didn't your real Thanksgiving, your real family, seem kind of, well, defective in comparison?

Maybe the kindly old uncle kept complaining about Junior's tattoo, and the sweet daughter was snippy because she wanted to go to a movie instead. Perhaps the kids and grandchildren were fighting and yelling and pulling the cat's tail. Or maybe there was hardly any family at all there, because you were the only child of two only children, or your kids were celebrating the holiday with your ex.

Maybe the turkey turned into tofu bean sprout casserole because your son became a vegetarian, but Dad wouldn't have carved the turkey anyway because he was celebrating Thanksgiving with his new wife. And maybe Mom didn't cook at all because the family chef has always been Ronald McDonald.

And yet, Norman Rockwell's vision is what stays with us, because it shows us as we believe ourselves to be: loving, honest, and overwhelmingly NICE.

Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post world was a safe, tranquil place, where children were funny, mischievous, and sometimes innocently wise (not surprisingly, Rockwell did illustrations for both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn). Grownups were kindly -- grandpas taught boys to fish, dads played catch with them, and a runaway boy would get a coke and a talking to from a friendly cop. In Rockwell's world everybody knew and trusted each other.

It was a little league world, of "fair play" and "let the best man win." When injustice was discovered, we stood up for the right: one of the most affecting of Rockwell's images is the little black girl being escorted to school by federal marshals.

This wasn't just Rockwell's vision of America. The same vision was in Readers' Digest, every single issue chock full of unforgettable people, everyday heroes, and the funny stories we told on ourselves. It was in the TV shows we watched, where we could count on Jim Anderson and Ward Cleaver to solve their kids' problems and teach gentle moral lessons. When people didn't do the right thing, Sergeant Friday would catch them; every episode ended with the assurance that the crooks were convicted and thrown in jail.

That vision filled our movies, too, and our books. We could count on ordinary people to do the right thing, no matter what. Dorothy defended Toto against the wicked witch (even feeling guilty when the witch shriveled up and died), and Mr. Smith stood up for the rights of ordinary people in a corrupt uncaring Congress. Horton hatched the egg for the frivolous, thankless mother bird because "I meant what I said and I said what I meant: An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent."

It's not surprising that we prefer this appealing version of ourselves, no matter what our actual experiences are. The vision was even truthful in that it honored genuine, admirable American character traits and values. The problem is, the Saturday Evening Post version of Rockwell's world was like some small town in Minnesota -- nobody here but us nice, white, middle-class Protestants. It was a fine place to be, but it left out half of America. Which Rockwell fully understood; it's why he left the Post to do illustrations for Look Magazine, which portrayed a fuller, richer spectrum of American lives.

Rockwell's America is not something to be nostalgic for, because it was never entirely real. But it IS a community that we could work toward building, if we really wanted to. The Look Magazine version, that is, where a few more leaves were added to the dining room table so that everybody could share the turkey (or the tofu).

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