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Americana

The two weeks between the Capitol assault on our democracy and the inauguration of our 46th President roughly coincided with Sotheby’s “Americana Week, January 8 to 22.” In promoting furniture and folk art up for virtual bid, the auction house oddly designated a “week” as lasting 14 days.

But that wasn’t what diverted my attention to the Sotheby’s ad. It was View of Hallowell, Maine, an “American School” painting described in the catalog as “a mother and her son gazing upon the bustling waterfront and business district . . . from Butternut Park on the Chelsea side of the Kennebec River.”

The anonymous painting strikes all the right comfort notes of this learned form of nostalgia—a nostalgia that, for me at least, was implanted by historical-society reproductions in grade school textbooks. This is one of the few parts of our national narrative you could deem kid-safe—the primitive full-body portraits of children as miniature adults, usually holding a flower, a butterfly, a piece of fruit, or an unfortunate kitten by the neck; landscapes with giant rectangular cows and sheep anchoring patchwork farmsteads, with rolling hills and towns across rivers like the Kennebec, enlivened by the occasional sailboat or tugboat.

Such images reinforce the Playskool idea that everything has a returnable place. But there is also an implicit desire to show gentleness, harmony, and satisfaction with the domestic, the way the Little House books tamed the wilderness with the installation of Ma’s curio cabinet in the mud hut’s corner. In these kinds of orderly primitives, I tend to focus on the squares of windows in the town, because in some sense they correlate to the different kinds of individuals living or working therein, like flickering candles. The Hallowell Americana has moved far along from colonial primitive and anticipates the jejune Currier & Ives knockoffs of Grandma Moses, who was known to embroider pictures with yarn.

View of Hallowell, Maine

Of course the households such paintings depict were unlikely to have the means to own and display an oil painting. Walls were adorned with samplers—exhortations to love, friendship, and fidelity, cranked out by legions of needle-workers across the former colonies, or else rows of numbers and letters, the juvenilia of a new nation obsessed with numeracy and literacy. Did Betsy Ross arrange her counted stars to mimic sewing circles or the way Quaker Friends arranged their chairs to sit in silence? This was the happy land of No Idle Hands, of Paul Revere putting aside the ewer he was hammering to hop on his horse.

For a brief time in my young life, this brief window of history could be envisioned as somehow separate from the toxic cloud of slavery and the failures of a devastating Civil War. This Hallowell-type imagery took root before the realization of realizations—that all roads lead to Abraham Lincoln getting shot in the head and reversion to a set point of liberty and justice being denied to Black Americans.

The mental imagery that accompanied my own education about slavery and racial oppression tended toward medieval torture instruments—something from Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” with that merciless blade slicing through the very heart of America. Once you’ve seen the diagram of a Middle Passage ship or handbills for human auctions, there is little comfort in images of a “towne” square where illuminati like Ben Franklin post chatty letters describing scientific experiments to electrocute a turkey.

The Hallowell painting clearly channels a fantasy innocence associated with white New Englanders, progenitors of “coastal elites.” I grew up in south-central New York State, so you could not call me coastal. Still, I cultivated a bias toward the South, imbued it with otherness. I never wanted to have to think south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because that’s where you got to the war sites, the earth on which Americans in uniforms killed Americans in uniforms.

When I was in junior high and my family made a spring break trip to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, I made myself confront my bias by requesting that we stop at Gettysburg. Given that my family had a decidedly unintellectual bent, they waited in the car while I walked on the grass. The thing that horrified me about this encounter was that you could buy Confederate memorabilia in the gift shop. There was a Union Side and a Confederate side, as if this were the Yankees and the Mets. And more people were buying Confederate.

Often when observing artwork from a certain historical time, you view it as emblematic of cultural continuity when in fact it may be the culmination, the very end of a mindset or way of life. The Hallowell scene was painted in 1860. For every image like this from New England, there must have been a painted antithesis from Savannah. The other objects up for bid at Sotheby’s? Rich people’s federal-style furniture, rusty weathervanes, a carousel tiger from Georgia. It makes you wonder about other kinds of “Americana”—for instance, 400-year-old slave auction signs. I’m sure people bid on these.

On the evening of January 19, when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris asked the nation to mourn 400,000 COVID deaths with 400 lights along the Capitol reflecting pool, Lincoln sat illuminated in the distance. His melancholic grandiosity makes it seem like he’d never been human, only an imagined god, like the Great Sphinx of Giza. You can’t imagine this god arbitrarily strolling into a haberdasher on lower Broadway and coming out with a top hat, then strolling into Matthew Brady’s studio as a way to kill time before his infamous speech at Cooper Union. You can’t imagine this god codenamed “Nuts” by the Secret Service.

I will always associate President Biden’s inauguration with that image of Hallowell, Maine, where in 1860 there were no enslaved residents behind those neatly rendered squares of window. It ought to be the moral responsibility of the most sentimental Americana to remind us of the tragic endurance of the most vicious and odious Americana. Biden quoted Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation in his inaugural address: “If my name ever goes down in history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

Lincoln knew every working part of our democracy like a watchmaker. The way he put words together has stirred emotion in generations of Americans to an excess they can barely process. But the objective in Biden’s 2021 speech reminded me that my favorite Lincoln quote was not even uttered by him but by a Brit, W. H. Auden, 74 years after Lincoln’s assassination: “We must love one another or die.” §

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