"are you the President? / It is a trifle..."

Today is July 4th, America's birthday. Which makes me think of history, and what it is to be an American; "thinking," perhaps overstating in this case what is really more riffing than meditation, filtered--as always--through my own peculiar prism of interests and experiences. Those of you who follow this blog will certainly note recurring motifs....

Anyway. This particular train of thought was begun by my last post, in which a ship builder whom my ancestor knew--but who was not my ancestor--was enshrined in an exhibit at the Smithsonian. An "itinerant" ship builder at that. Another of my posts concerns a scientific pioneer, who married into the family, and that via a first cousin three times removed. Heck, one of my earliest posts was about a number of famous folks, from presidential relations to the subject of an Arthur Miller play, who married into my distant family. If you're thinking about bridesmaids versus brides right now, you're on the right track.

But what of my actual forefathers (and mothers)? Did my "Miner '49er" ancestor discover the gold in California? No, but he died there a year later looking for it. A couple days ago at the library, I discovered a book on the Mayflower that looked interesting. Flipping through the index, I noticed that out of over four hundred pages, in a book covering fifty years, my four pilgrim forebears warranted just a handful of mentions, usually as part of a longer list of names. (I still checked it out.)

My ancestors often seemed to be present at--or at least adjacent to--historical events and personages, but never quite got the glory. Which reminds me of the wonderful children's book (and later Disney cartoon) Ben and Me, by Robert Lawson. The "Me" of the title is a mouse, who was present at, and occasionally inspired, many of Benjamin Franklin's greatest achievements, but never got any of the recognition or acclaim himself. Lawson followed up this book with similar titles, whose subjects included Christopher Columbus and Paul Revere, among others.

Gertrude Stein, upon returning to America for the first time after more than twenty year's absence, wrote, "In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is." (Which was far truer in 1937 than it is today.) She was writing about geography, but I think there is a further meaning: that there are far more people who are nobody than anybody, in the sense of what she called "glory," but we might call fame. And accepting that interpretation, again her words seem even more true today.

Gertrude Stein, at the height of her fame,
in a portrait by her friend Carl Van Vechten, 1935.

Almost fifty years after Stein's piece, performance artist Laurie Anderson wrote "Zero and One," a section of Home of the Brave, one of her numerous works that reflect on America and what it means. She continues the theme: 

Now, nobody wants to be a Zero. To be a zero means to be a nothing, a nobody, a has-been, a clod. On the other hand, almost everybody wants to be Number One. To be number one means to be a winner, top of the heap, the acme. And there seems to be a strange kind of national obsession with this particular number. Now, in my opinion, the problem with these two numbers is that they are just too close; leaves little room in there for everybody else.

Laurie Anderson, famous for explaining the US to us.

And speaking of trains (of thought), and has-beens, I am also reminded of the musical On the Twentieth Century ("as in flight, across the night, America the beautiful rolls by...."), a confection by Comden and Green, with music by Cy Coleman. It's one of my all-time favorites (and much in need of a revival), directed by the legendary, but usually more high-minded director, Harold Prince. It too talks about fame, dealing as it does with 1930s theatrical folk, a few of whom have even ventured to--gasp!--Hollywood. In a typical put-down, one of the characters says to two-bit leading man Bruce Granit, who plays opposite a much bigger star:

Don't tell me... I can't place the face, but I've seen you opposite Lily in all those pictures and I'd know the back of that head anywhere.

Kevin Kline, the front of the back of the head,
at the recording session for On the Twentieth Century, 1978.
 It was the show that first brought him to fame.

Apparently I must content myself with being descended from a long line of backs of heads. But surely there is another way to look at things....

For an earlier American anniversary, our country's bicentennial, Stephen Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for a show called "Pacific Overtures." Sondheim being Sondheim, this was no 1776 of course, but an exploration of imperialism and global homogenization that was set in Japan, beginning in 1853 and ending in the present day, presented from the point of view of the Japanese, using elements of Japanese theater, including kabuki and bun-raku. It was one of a series of collaborations of challenging shows written by Sondheim and directed by Harold Prince, the same fellow who gave us the aforementioned On the Twentieth Century. (I told you he was high-minded.)

The arrival of the Americans in Japan,
from the original production of Pacific Overtures, 1976.

One of the highlights of Pacific Overtures, and a high point in the Sondheim canon, is the song "Someone in a Tree." Recounting the first official meeting between the Americans and the Japanese, the narrator (accurately) notes that there are no records of the fateful day, which begins a thrilling musical sequence. An old man suddenly appears, who claims to have been there. He summons his younger self to tell of what he saw from his vantage point hiding in a tree, although he was too far away to be able to hear the events. Next a warrior appears, hidden under the floor, who is able to hear what is said, but not see the meeting. Each character adds their unique perspective, until they all realize that

I'm a fragment of the day.
If I weren't, who's to say
Things would happen here they way
That they're happening?

It's the fragment, not the day.
It's the pebble, not the stream.
It's the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And history
And someone in a tree.

Of course, it is not hard to make the leap from being someone in a tree to someone in a family tree. It's nice to think that every one of us is part of the story, blurring the lines between which of us might be considered a "somebody," who a "nobody." Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman gave us an entire play (although not the one about my distant relatives-by-marriage) glorifying the "common man" to whom attention must be paid. Good for him; his Pulitzer was well-deserved.

Perhaps songwriters Frank Loesser and Jule Styne summed it up best in their song "That Ain't Hay (That's the U S A)," from the 1941 film Sis Hopkins.  "Hooray, hooray for the little guy...."

Have a Happy Independence Day, no matter whoever--or whatever--you are! You're an American. And that ain't hay.

1 comment:

  1. Very enjoyable post. so true I feel i know somebody who knows somebody famous.