Norman Rockwell’s America

A serious and ambitious novelist who has published ten books since the war, WRIGHT MORRIS received the National Book Award this year for his volume, THE FIELD OF VISION. A Nebraskan by birth, he has lived at various times in California, at Wellfleet on Cape Cod, and on a mesa north of Gallup, and now resides in Wayne, Pennsylvania. An expert photographer and craftsman, he has made it his mission to see America first and as it is.

NORMAN ROCKWELL has been called the most thoroughly American of all our painters today. It is fitting and proper, therefore, that he should be considered “the most popular, the most loved, of all contemporary artists.” From such a fact there is more to be gleaned than the usual sophisticated despair, or ironic amusement. Here is our beginning. Our problem lies in the fact that we have not, as yet, gone beyond it. In speaking of the future of the novel, Henry James said: “Beginnings, as we all know, are usually small things, but continuations are not always strikingly great ones.”

In the beginning was Norman Rockwell. The continuations have not been strikingly great.

We can say, first, last, and always, that Norman Rockwell has been true to his beginnings — to his trust in his own and American sentiment. He is a genre painter; that is to say, he uses graphic means to tell a story. His technique may be described as most perfect where it dissolves, imperceptibly, into anecdote. This anecdotal picture that tells a simple story is the father of the story that gives us the simple picture. The same picture, as a rule. An unadorned, unpretentious, photographically convincing portrayal of real life.

In a period of forty years Rockwell has supplied the Saturday Evening Post with more than three hundred of its covers. He has taught a generation of Americans to see. They look about them and see, almost everywhere they look, what Norman Rockwell sees. The tomboy with the black eye, in the doctor’s waiting room; the father discussing the Facts of Life with his teen-age son; the youth in the dining car on his first solo flight from home; and the family in the car, headed for an outing, followed by the same family on the tired ride home.

The convincing realism of the details, photographic in their accuracy, is all subtly processed through a filter of sentiment. It is this sentiment that heightens the reality, making it for some an object of affection, for others — a small minority — an object of ridicule. It all depends on that intangible thing: the point of view.

Young men and women, now numbering thousands, at the beginning of careers in art have tried and usually failed to explain their point of view to a puzzled mother, a skeptical father. What can be wrong — Father would like to know— with Norman Rockwell, who is so obviously good? His very goodness, of course; but this usually ends the argument. Discussion leads nowhere. The two points of view go their different ways.

After considerable exposure to modern art in museums, fashion magazines, the world of advertising, and everyday living, that mythical figure, the man in the street, will still go along with Norman Rockwell. And so — whenever they can get him—will the Saturday Evening Post. In that respect the times have not changed. A vote for Norman Rockwell is a vote for the real America. It is the nature of his gift that his very technique appears to dissolve into the subject, leaving the deposit of sentiment we like, otherwise no trace. After we have recognized the figures as our neighbors, and the street they live on as our own, we are left precisely where we came in. At the beginning, that is. It is the nature of the genre piece to limit itself to clichés.

But if this charge is leveled at Norman Rockwell, it is leveled in suspension and will never reach him. Norman Rockwell is not there. In the picture we attack, there is only ourselves. This is why such an attack gets us fighting mad. This also helps to explain the almost total absence of transitional material between Grant Wood’s American Gothic — which is true to the Rockwell tradition — and the sort of painting that most young people are doing today. It was easier to leap directly into the arms of God or the Devil than fight across the no man’s land of raw material clichés. On such a battlefield a clean break is the only one possible.

The extent to which this gap remains — and will continue to remain, we can feel with assurance — is evident in Rockwell’s painting of Jennifer jones in The Song of Bernadette. As an article in Graphis, to which I am indebted for many of the paintings described in this essay, points out, 20th Century Fox turned to Norman Rockwell, the illustrator, rather than to the resources of the movie camera, to portray and advertise the star in the leading role. That the movie industry should choose Norman Rockwell is both a testimony to his craft and a revealing commentary on the prevailing American taste. Our realistic front still has its soft, yellow-filter sky.

A more recent example in the form of a tribute was Rockwell’s portraits of the presidential candidates. It was left to Rockwell to reveal what the camera angles concealed and to give the people the facts — insofar as they were self-evident. Mr. Rockwell’s Stevenson is the more instructive: we see the wit and intellectual cut down to our size, not cut down with malice but rather with affection, as the neighbors of a famous man know him to be — a simple regular guy. Mr. Stevenson emerges as a man we usually find behind a drug counter, shrewd in his way, of independent mind, and willing both to take and give advice. One of us, that is. Not at all the sort of egghead we had heard about.

Scrutinized, held under the light that we find the most illuminating — the soft-sharp lens of Rockwell’s craft — our raw material is seldom raw at all. It is hardly material. The clinical word for it is cliché. In the beginning, this credo reads, was the cliché. The raw material effect is like the tinseled snow hung on the rootless trees at Christmas, stimulating the sensation without the embarrassment of the facts.

THE paradox of our situation might be put like this: having either exhausted or depleted the raw material that appeals to us, we needed a technician to create the illusion that it is still there. Rockwell is that technician. He understands the hunger, and he supplies the nourishment. The hunger is for the Good Old Days — the blackeyed tomboy, the hopeless, lovable pup, the freckle-faced young swain on his first date, the kid with white flannels at his first prom — sensations which we no longer have but still seem to want; dreams of innocence before it went corrupt.

This entire genre, crowded with the artifacts that give it pathos and conviction, is generally inhabited by children, friendly animals, loving mothers, and wise old ladies and gentlemen. The beginnings of life come in for sentimental comment, often touching and penetrating: the Huck Finn myth of our lost youth, the Territory of Dreams that always lay ahead. But what that Territory turned out to be, neither Mark Twain nor Rockwell will tell us. It is a world of onsets, maiden speeches, first blushes, first impressions, and new departures. A universe of firsts. First dog, first kiss, first heartbreak, and first love. At the end of this Journey, somehow sweetened by a life that has evaded both realization and comment, we find the very old engaged in prayer, dozing with kittens, tolerating youngsters, or humorously caught in one of the innocent traps of life: a barber’s chair, a rumble seat, a train coach shared by a pair of young lovers, or a bench where the squirrels rifle our pockets while we sleep.

Between our first love, which is implicitly our last, and our last nap, which is implicitly forever, there is very little. What there is can be summed up in a word. In what is perhaps his most revealing work — one in which he portrays his full range of types — Rockwell illustrates, by the use of a series of double portraits, a tasty piece of gossip making its rounds. Here is la ronde; the permissible ronde Américaine. It is clear that a good piece of gossip, a good joke, is something that good Americans can exchange. The democratic process can be seen at work as the story makes its rounds from man to man, woman to woman, level to level, until it finally comes full circle — back to the man who is the butt of it. They are all. needless to say, good American types. The democratic process is also at work since we see no black men, no yellow men, no obvious Jews, Italians, or roughnecks. Just plain folks. As you probably are yourself. What the gossip is we can almost guess; it is something of interest to all these people, and it goes without saying that it is not dirty, though it might have an edge. But basically goodhearted. Basically good clean fun.

This interlude between first love and last breath is an illustrated version of Old Macdonald, forever down on his farm, where funny things are forever happening. Sex raises its adolescent murmur, not its ugly head. In this panel of profiles, this great family portrait, Rockwell gives us the long span of a lifetime between the first and the last joke we have heard. In this report, consciously or otherwise, a note of comment can be detected that is usually conspicuously absent from his work. His people are always, we might say, comfortably real. But in this portrait they verge on the uncomfortable. The raw material is almost so raw it speaks lor itself. The effect — the cumulative effect, since we deal here with a group portrait — is something more than the sum of its parts. If the eye remains on the page, and slowly follows the gossip through all of its phases, a disquieting, nonhumorous impression builds up. How does it happen? It is clear that they are all just goodhearted folks. But it is also clear, increasingly, that they have nothing else on their minds. That until this chestnut came along they had nothing else to exchange. It is the gossip that binds them together in brotherhood. Missing from the tableau is the dirty-minded lowbrow who would have spoiled all the fun and the egghead who might have used it for his own ends. The story comes full circle pretty much as it was told.

IN A new series of 1957 calendar illustrations, entitled The Four Seasons, Mr. Rockwell supplies us with a credo that lucidly sums up his function as an artist. This is his statement:

In a world that puts such importance on the pursuit of youth, it is good to consider, occasionally, the charms — and the comforts — of maturity. For whatever else may be said, maturity fosters familiarity which in turn gives feelings of security and understanding that are valuable in these days of continuing change. I have tried to show these feelings in the paintings for the new Four Seasons calendar.

My pictures show two people who, after living together for many years, have reached the stage of sympathy and compatibility for which all of us strive. They know their weaknesses and their strengths. They are comfortable and secure in their relationships with each other. And while Mother presumably takes Father’s strong points for granted, she’s still trying tolerantly to keep him on the straight and narrow when signs of frailty appear,

Paintings like these are fun to do. While they arc humorous, they are also human, and the subtle touch of forbearance evident in each of them is something all of us can learn. I can only hope you’ll enjoy looking at these pictures as much as I have enjoyed working on them.

Perhaps the reader can visualize the “subtle touch of forbearance” in these illustrations. It verges closely — in the words of a recent parody in Punch — on the Brighter Side of the Bubonic Plague. Maturity, whatever else may be said, seen through the forbearance of Mr. Rockwell, seems to be an adolescent pipe dream of the genial aspects of senility. The pursuit of youth is made more visible, rather than less, in these gentle fuddy-duddies, Mom and Pop, and their pathetic inability to grow up. A certain aging has taken place, but such growth as we observe is downward and backward. That Mother takes Father’s strong points for granted is obvious, desperately so — as Father’s strong points are touchingly invisible. A genial pathos, sentimentally evoked, would seem to be the mortar that binds them together and provides the comfort in what we describe as their relationship. That hard word marriage has given way to the slogans inscribed on the insurance posters, where the happy smiling couple are preserved, safe from old age, in the amber of leisure. Nothing will touch them but the postman with his monthly retirement check.

All of the durable clichés we have already described are served up afresh in these four tableaux. “Winter” shows us the calendar being nailed to the wall, one that features a pin-up girl discreetly censored — not the sort of tempting dish that men or boys, if the distinction exists, pin up for real delectation. “Spring” finds Father down with a cold, lovingly wrapped up in Mother’s patchwork quilt, his feet in a pan of water, as she spoon-feeds him what is so obviously good for him.

“Summer” finds him in the yard, in a state of collapse after a tussle with the lawn mower, while Mother, with a compassionate gaze, stands waiting to pour him a glass of lemonade. In all these pictures a cat, symbol of the loving home, is conspicuously evident, and proves in his kittenish ways to be as young in heart as his masters.

The date beneath these illustrations is 1957, but they are daydreams from a timeless past; only Mother’s somewhat battered leather moccasins indicate that the time is the present. Immortal moths escape from the holes in Father’s pair of red flannels, indicating that with “Autumn" something called winter is near. The mature round of life — American style — in this manner comes full cycle, leaving the reader prepared and expectant for the new calendar that will usher in the new year. We are free to rest assured that Mother will keep Father to the straight and narrow path.

Paintings like these, Mr. Rockwell tells us, are fun to do. Indeed, they must be. Fun — good clean fun — is all that has gone into them. They bear the same relation to life as the painting sets now sold in drugstores, where the scene and the sentiment exist, and no talent is needed to brighten things up. One merely daubs in the colors according to the numbers on the lid. And they are also fun to do. Or so it says on the box.

We might say that Mr. Rockwell’s special triumph is in the conviction his countrymen share that the mythical world he evokes actually exists. This cloudland of nostalgia seems to loom higher and higher on the horizon, as the horizon itself, the world of actual experience, disappears from view. The mind soars off—in the manner that highways, with new model cars, soar into the future — leaving the drab world of commonplace facts and sensations behind. In soaring into the past, rather than the future, Mr. Rockwell is true to himself and his public, since that is where the true Territory Ahead actually lies. In knowing this he illustrates, with admirable fidelity, the American Land of Heart’s Desire.

When we think of Don Quixote, most of us will visualize, I think, the lean seedy figure in the pen drawings of Doré, an erect spindly wraith seated on his bony nag, followed by the slouched, melancholy Sancho. We see him spear in hand, we see him tilting windmills, we see him thrown from his ridiculous horse, but I think we never see him as he wished to see himself—invisible. He is all too visible, and in every inch mad as a coot. The element of humor in it appeals to us, but the element of wonder, I’m afraid, escapes. The golden Helmet of Mambrino is a piece of nonsense. We are all Sanchos at heart.

If we now conjure up the picture I have in mind, it will be a new one. The model is lacking. But with a little nudging our imagination will supply us with it. Let us imagine Don Quixote, crowned with a battered barber’s basin, attended by his ever-faithful Sancho, as he would appear in a cover on the Saturday Evening Post. As he would appear through the eyes and technique of Norman Rockwell. A very lifelike figure — resembling somebody we know, a neighbor or a member of the family — on a horse that we had seen that morning drawing the milk cart, wearing the basin in which we had, as a boy, washed our feet. I am not invoking this picture to ridicule it. Quite the contrary, since if we hope to understand the “imagination in America” we must start, if not end, with this master of verisimilitude. With this artist who, above all others, heightens the appearance of reality.

In Mr. Rockwell’s conception of Don Quixote, to what extent would he reveal more than the obvious humor of it? The pathetic old man, with the brass basin on his head, in the charge of the shrewd but loyal Sancho. There would be a touch of pity, a touch of pathos, and a quantity of goodhumored affection; but of wonder, that transforming element, not a drop. He is a childish old man with bats loose in his belfry — not unlike one we have in the family —and we identify ourselves with Sancho, rather than with him. Poor old Sancho. who, like ourselves, has to humor him. As for that helmet on his head, it is plainly a barber’s basin. We all know that. We are Sanchos to the core, and he speaks with our voice when he cries that he can no longer bear in patience the wind and the lies, the buggery and humbuggery that the old man gives out. Pity for an old fool, humor for a young one, and between the two of them, a joke. A good, clean joke.

Pathos — the only serious sentiment we will permit ourselves without embarrassment — might reveal itself unconsciously in this portrait, as a touch of malice revealed itself in The Gossip. Rockwell plainly knows, as he assumes we do, that the dream is in the past. The Great Good Place is back there at the beginning, where it has always been. The faces in The Gossip, all meant to be contemporaries, have the cracker-barrel look of period pieces, characters in the sense that time will no longer alter them. Many of these people are Rockwell’s Yankee neighbors — or reasonable facsimiles of them — but they are selected for what they represent, and they represent the past. The present exists, if at all, in Rockwell, as a frame that heightens the nostalgia: the doctor’s crisp waiting room where the tomboy with her black eye smilingly waits.

How many American fathers, if not mothers, would like to have had a girl like that? Not like the little jitterbugging, all too sex-conscious little number they have. Not like the present, but more like the imagined past.

IN Thanksgiving, 1951 — one of the most successful of his Post covers — Rockwell portrays an old lady and a small boy, the permissible extremes of our awareness, seated at a table in a “rough” railroad restaurant, saying grace. The youths and elderly men who surround them are all touchingly aware, and properly touched. The central figures, the old lady and the boy, have been lifted from some genre piece of the past, lock, stock, and barrel, and show no taint of existing in the world where we find them. The boy wears what such little boys were wearing during the First World War. The old lady has her alligator bag, her umbrella, and her sewing reticule on the floor at her side. No cliché has been evaded. Every cliché is treated with the utmost respect. Through the window a modern locomotive steams in the yard.

How times have changed! we exclaim, and see ourselves as that pious unspoiled boy, and this fragment of the past as the real past that is gone.

These characters appear neither out of the past, nor the hidden byways of the present, but rather out of the thin air of our imaginative need for them. That tomboy, with her blackened eye, and that puzzled teen-ager getting the Facts of Life are meticulously illustrated daydreams to put the sad daily facts out of mind. These fantasies, generated on the trains whisking urban fathers to their homes in the suburbs, are meant to be fictions, lacking any connection with real life. It was in the past — just yesterday — that there were giants in the earth, dreams in our hearts, love in our homes, religion in our churches, honor in our markets, and a future of such promise that the very thought of it brings an ache to the throat, and the eyes grow dim. In youth and age

— a hopeful look forward or a yearning glance backward — Rockwell sustains the sentimental extremities of our lives. In between, making its eternal round, filling up the big central gap in our existence, is the joke. Stop me if you have heard this one, says the joker; but nobody does. After all, what else is there? La ronde is le rire.

If we now return to our imagined Don Quixote, crowned with his American-style helmet-barber’sbasin, the relationship between technique and raw (American) material is made clear. The raw material is what counts. Technique is the way we gloss or heighten it with sentiment. It is the basin, as basin, that interests us. and no transformation is desired. Such magical properties as it might possess transport us into the past, rather than into the future. It is the key, the open sesame, to our nostalgia. The battered basin, the bony nag, the old man with the bats loose in his belfry are so many strings around our memory fingers, the unbroken ties we retain with the past. They transport us, rather than transform us, and it is the past, not the future, that beckons.

The element of folk wisdom in this pattern generates much that is good in our writing, but we are apt to overlook the crippling power of the cliché. The Helmet of Mambrino, shorn of its magic, hangs affectionately on that nail in the kitchen — because it is a basin, an old basin, not because it has unusual properties. It does not change us so much as remind us; what we want is not change but reminiscence, and, needless to say, what we want is what we get.

Among our many native gifts, which are large, is one that is seldom singled out for comment. It is the faculty we have, one might say the intuition, by which we transform our adult works of art, few as they are, into children’s books. We transform them into books that are safe. Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn are not merely safe for boys to read, but are even read by them. Adventure stories. On the shelf with Treasure Island and Tom Swift. It would seem to be here, and here alone, that the transforming powers of the Helmet of Mambrino are part of our tradition; we transform the adult into a child. It is the converse of transforming the present into the past. In either case we get back to the beginnings, back to innocence before it was corrupted, back to that time when the world and ourselves were young.

A boy’s-eye view of the world, enchanted in Tom Sawyer, disenchanted in Huck Finn, is wonderfully blended in the art of Norman Rockwell and seasoned to taste. Here we can often have it both ways. The grown-up world impinges on the past only to heighten its flavor, the purity of the enchantment, the sweet pathos of the light that failed. Old folks — people who once again are notoriously childlike — reappear to reaffirm, in their seasoned wisdom, the youthful dreams. At the extremities of our life the childlike meet. It is the childish dream — somewhat battered by the interlude of life — that once again, in its wisdom, dominates our lives. An old man’s gnarled hand, one finger clutched by a boy’s small hand, sums it all up. The beginning and the ending of the dream are thus made one.

Mark Twain, the one who didn’t like books. Would have seen eye to eye with Norman Rockwell, since it is Twain’s eyes through which Rockwell usually sees. It is the world of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Aunt Sally, brought up to date. It is still the old battle of Aunt Sally and her civilizing ways. A world of beginnings, of exemplary firsts, all of it under the watchful eyes of grownups who are still — bless their hearts — children at heart themselves. They have grown up, but we have no idea how they got that way. They are included in the picture to frame and heighten what came first. Childhood did, of course, and young dreams, and all those promises that men fail to live by; but back then they were real, back then we believed in them. Whereas, if you look around you now — but of course we don’t. It’s much more reassuring to look, as we do, into the mythical past.