Saturday, July 04, 2020

'I Watch the Fireworks from Far Away'

The story headlined on the cover of the June 30, 1956 issue of The Nation is oxymoronically titled “Soviet Legal Reforms.” In the same issue, Kenneth Rexroth reviews a newly published collection of Edward Gibbon’s letters. There’s an article, “View from Tangier,” by the odious Paul Bowles, and Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform gets a review, as does Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature, Vol. I.
Dwight Eisenhower was president and in four months would be elected to a second term. Four months earlier, on Feb. 25, Nikita Krushchev had delivered his “Secret Speech” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality. In the April 30, 1956 issue of Life magazine, Whitaker Chambers, ever skeptical of anything coming from the mouth of a Communist, wrote: “With the smashing of the dark idol of Stalin, Communism can hope to compete again for the allegiance of men’s minds, especially among the youth where its influence had fallen almost to zero.”

In that same issue of The Nation, Howard Nemerov published “Fourth of July” (Mirrors and Windows, 1958):

“Because I am drunk, this Independence Night,
I watch the fireworks from far away,
from a high hill, across the moony green
Of lakes and other hills to the town harbor,
Where stately illuminations are flung aloft,
One light shattering in a hundred lights
Minute by minute. The reason I am crying,
Aside from only being country drunk,
That is, may be that I have just remembered
The sparklers, rockets, roman candles and
so on, we used to be allowed to buy
When I was a boy, and set off by ourselves
At some peril to life and property.
Our freedom to abuse our freedom thus
Has since, I understand, been remedied
By legislation. Now the authorities
Arrange a perfectly safe public display
To be watched at a distance; and now also
The contribution of all the taxpayers
Together makes a more spectacular
Result than any could achieve alone
(A few pale pinwheels, or a firecracker
Fused at the dog's tail). It is, indeed, splendid:
Showers of roses in the sky, fountains
Of emeralds, and those profusely scattered zircons
Falling and falling, flowering as they fall
And followed distantly by a noise of thunder.
My eyes are half-afloat in happy tears.
God bless our Nation on a night like this,
And bless the careful and secure officials
Who celebrate our independence now.”

No screed, no thesis. Nemerov’s speaker regrets one of modern life’s minor losses – the freedom to celebrate freedom as we please. Government has taken over one of our lost pleasures – the joy of benignly blowing up things -- for our own good.

[Find Chambers’ Life essay collected in Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers (ed. Terry Teachout, Regnery Gateway, 1989).]

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