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Ellen Reiss writes of this work:

When “36 Things about America” was published in the journal Definition in 1961, the following comment by its author accompanied it: “How is America? What do we love in it? Where can it never fail us? What is the relation of the lively and flat in America? Where is America like the everlasting, integrated wonder of space, and where has it been weakened, corrupted by the secret piddlingness and cruelty of persons?”

These questions are for us, urgently, now. And Eli Siegel’s thirty-six statements, firm and musical, can help us know how to love America truly. They can help us know how to criticize this land of Walt Whitman, the Rocky Mountains, the Declaration of Independence.

I consider “36 Things about America” to be some of the greatest writing about our nation.

—from The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #683


36 Things about America

An Arithmetical Assemblage of Notations on the Persisting

By Eli Siegel

1.   The Mississippi flows every day and the Missouri every day joins it.

2.   There is still the Hoe-down, a joyous American tune with the fear of God swiftly in it.

3.   The great Leatherstocking still goes about in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, everywhere in America.

4.   Ethics is deeply and gravely present in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.

5.   The Mayflower Compact of 1620 is still as good, as lovely as ever.

6.   Mr. H.L. Mencken's bounding irreverence is still in the libraries.

7.   Mr. Lincoln's face is to be seen on all the pennies.

8.   You can think of General Grant rolling on the grass in his blue uniform and brass buttons and shrieking: It's beautiful!

9.   Each day the great Atlantic goes against the shores of South Carolina.

10.  Ahab, in Moby Dick, still fights the White Whale: that in man which is to be understood.

11.  Jonathan Edwards' work of 1758, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, still explains much of what is going on.

12.  The Rocky Mountains are beautiful and seemingly undisturbed; and still present their great lesson.

13.  The summer of 1927 is still with us; and the sincere smile of a little girl of three which took place on August 13 of that summer, near the Palisades of New Jersey at about 7 o'clock, with the afternoon much declining, is extant, looking for comprehension—that is, the smile.

14.  Somewhere in New York City, the Psalms are still lovingly read in the original Hebrew.

15.  Walt Whitman was in Washington and he is still there; he is also in Brooklyn.

16.  Mists can still come widely over Lake Superior with the fall of night.

17.  When a baby is born the wonder of everything still comes to America.

18.  Mothers, in all their confusion and grief, still long for a beautiful attitude to their children.

19.  The Declaration of Independence still sounds good and permanent.

20.  The South, that helped the Negro spiritual to be, can make for more spirituals, more heavy and light music, more freedom in great dark.

21.  Emily Dickinson still steps about lively, and still points to the complete meaning of glowworms; and the uninterrupted significance of green things flying diagonally.

22.  Hart Crane is still saying: Columbus can meet Pocahontas on Brooklyn Bridge.

23.  There are many beauties in the Congressional documents of 1830.

24.  Poe's The Gold Bug still advises America to dig deep and accurately.

25.  The St. Louis Blues still brings meaning to the Altamaha, the Susquehanna, the Hudson, the Potomac, and the Kaw.

26.  The Kol Nidre still meets the desires of old Indians, and the Kaddish satisfies the hopes of those who died at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Shiloh.

27.  Thaddeus Stevens is still trying to bring out good things in Robert E. Lee and the other way round.

28.  Jefferson Davis wanders wisely by old synagogues.

29.  Henry James is read more than ever for the sweet subtlety, the heavenly intricacy of his sentences, going after the just seeing by man of woman, and by self of self.

30.  Americans don't believe some of the bad things they seem to believe.

31.  A continent is big enough to take care of sourness and snottiness.

32.  Americans have not rejected Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, even as they read Science Fiction and bow more to Henry James.

33.  Hemingway's In Our Time and "Soldier's Home" are getting ready to mean more and more what they should mean.

34.  Tom Paine has been circling gently over the Appalachians, saying a few things to someone.

35.  Very jazz is getting closer to very poetry.

36.  Gertrude Stein and Longfellow's Village Blacksmith have come together for the good of the country.


Copyright © 1961 by Definition Press


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