Do you know the Norman Rockwell painting called Freedom from Want? It’s the one where an elderly white couple is placing a cooked turkey on a not-too-elaborately set table, at which sit their smiling children and grandchildren.
It a gorgeous painting, with a lovely sentiment behind it. Isn’t it wonderful, the painting seems to ask, to live in a country in which we enjoy freedom from want, in which we have the luxury to enjoy a holiday dinner with our family? In which we possess perhaps not the fanciest tableware and home furnishings and clothing, but very functional and good tableware and home furnishings and clothing: just enough for health and happiness? And, golly, look at how healthy and happy we are! God bless the U.S.A.!
If I shut off the analytical side of my brain, I feel enraptured by the painting. It’s a monumental work of art. And yet . . . there’s that pesky voice inside my head that’s bringing up a slew of pesky issues. Why are there only white people in this representation of America? What about the Japanese internment camps that were being established around this time (the early 1940s) in the U.S.? What about people living in poverty? What about the Native Americans? What about all those Thanksgiving dinners during which the adults argue about religion and politics and complain about one another and get drunk and violent, as the children break things and hurt themselves and bully the littler kids to tears? What about people who are alone on Thanksgiving? What about the turkey that died to make this idyllic dinner possible? And on and on and on . . .
I had a similar double-sided reaction to reading the novel Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. This passage, in particular, in which a man describes his wife, makes me cringe:
“She was miraculous. Her body, like his, was always thinking for her, but in a different way, shaping the children, or moving ahead of him into any room to change the atmosphere there to fit any particular mood he was in.”
Yikes! He mindlessly walks into rooms, as she bustles around nurturing the children—without his help—while also reading his mind and making things perfect for him? Bring me a bucket or an airline bag!
To be fair, this novel was written in the 1940s and 1950s, before the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s began. Furthermore, to be fair, there are real, biological differences between men and women (on average, I hasten to add, with a wide and beautiful variation among individuals).
However, living in the 2010s as I am, I can’t help noticing threads throughout this novel that I would classify as overly sentimental and of narrow cultural scope. Of particular concern to me are the strict gender roles depicted, the pervasive nostalgia that (by definition) elevates the past to a greater glory than the present, and a disconcerting (in light of the politics of the present century) nonintellectualism that elevates “how things have always been done” over new ideas (which may or may not be good ideas, but should not, in my opinion, be discarded simply because they are new).
And yet . . . the compulsion to analyze everything can be oppressive. In truth, sometimes things are idyllic. There are rare occasions when the family is gathered and healthy, when Aunt Sue and Uncle Robbie have come to an unaccountable truce, when the children are excited about the flakes of snow and the picture books, when everyone is warm in both senses of the word and making jokes that are actually very funny, when everyone is enjoying hot cider mixed with various other ingredients, when Grandma’s old-timey recipe is out on the counter; and then you open the oven and carefully pull out the rack, and the turkey is perfect, just perfect.
And for decades, you cherish your memory of that one uniquely miraculous holiday gathering.