Our National Anthems  

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 4 2001 3:00 AM

Our National Anthems  

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Josh: As it happens, the last uncut version of Hamlet I saw was in May. I assume it was uncut, since it was endless, also stuffed with theatrical Hamburger Helper—portentous dumb shows, fussy lighting effects, etc. The last cut Hamlet I saw was Peter Brook's in April, and I not only complained about it, I damn near got apoplectic over it. Not that there's anything sacrosanct about a text. I love Olivier's headlong movie version, which dispenses with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras (among others), reorders scenes, dumps others, and still feels like Hamlet. I mean, so what if Brook butchered the play to make room for the indulgent shtick of his dreadful actors and his pretentious directorial bullwah? It didn't ruin the play for all time. It just ruined it for the audience, who might have understood Laertes' rage at Hamlet if they'd met him before he inexplicably turned up at Ophelia's funeral, or gotten the gist of the Hecuba speech a tad more clearly if the Player hadn't declaimed it in an invented language. Shakespeare, I feel certain, would have plotzed. And then called his agent.

But I digress. The point is, just because nobody sings the "pilgrim's feet" verses anymore doesn't mean they're not part of the song—viz., Tim's argument above. And it still seems to me that if "GBA" breaches the church/state divide with its ecumenical invocation of the deity, then "ATB" obliterates it.

As to "TLIYL" 's viability as an anthem, I think you touch on its problem when you say that a national anthem should be something people—by which I assume you mean everyone—want to sing. Of all the songs we're discussing, only "TLIYL" has an association with a distinct political segment of the population—the left. Whatever problems people have, musically or intellectually, with the "SSB," "ATB," or "GBA," they transcend divisions within the culture. I'm not so sure "TLIYL" does, at least not now. But then, "GBA" didn't fare so well in the '60s either.

Tim, I certainly didn't intend to demean Katharine Lee Bates, much less question her proclivities, but you've got to admit, those "pilgrims feet" lines clunk something awful. In any event, your exegesis of "more than self their country loved/ And mercy more than life" is really good, especially the part about Reconstruction, but I think it proves my point, which is that most of "ATB" couldn't be harder to understand if it were written in Chaucerian English. One lyric that would pop right out if it were sung today is the finish, "God shed his grace on thee/ Till nobler men keep once again/ Thy whiter jubilee." Now we both know that's a reference to the "alabaster cities," but do you think that's how those words would play now?

As to poor old Irving B. subverting the whole idea behind two sacred holidays, there's a difference between secularizing and subverting. The religious aspects of Christmas and Easter aren't undermined in his songs; they're just not mentioned, in the interest of allowing us all into the holiday spirit. Besides, when it comes to secularizing sacred holidays, the British and the Germans got there long before we did (viz., A Christmas Carol and Christmas trees, respectively).

To me, the interesting and splendid thing about these songs is how much they mean to so many. On the Saturday after the attacks, there was a candle-lit walk down to our local firehouse, which lost 12 of its 28 firefighters in the Towers. It seemed as if the whole neighborhood turned out; our main drag was packed solid. It was very quiet, eerily so for so large a crowd. As we walked down the avenue, small groups sang, but very softly, all the songs we've discussed here and some we haven't, such as We Shall Overcome and Give Peace a Chance (What do you want, it's Park Slope). At the firehouse, we all stood in silence for a few moments, then someone raised a candle in salute and everyone followed. What a sight! Eventually the whole great mob of us sang "GBA" and "ATB" to the firemen. A brave few assayed the "SSB." The crowd broke up quite slowly, and you could hear more quiet singing as we walked home. It was the keenest sense of community I'd felt all week, and the music more than helped. This discussion has heightened my appreciation of all these songs. They have their moments in and out of fashion and their various musical and lyrical issues, but they really do what we want them to do.

Alfred Gingold has written eight books, Timothy Noah writes Slate's "Chatterbox" column, Erik Tarloff is a novelist and SlatexBook Clubber

Who Are These People, and What Are They Talking About?

Welcome to a new twist in an ongoing Slate experiment. For a few years now, we've been doing our book reviews as epistolary correspondences between two critics—usually big shots in whatever field the book is about. Now Slate is switching to a cast of eight reviewers, chosen not for their expertise in any one area but because they're curious, sensible, and witty general readers whose criteria for evaluating a book are probably a lot like yours. Each week, you'll hear two of the folks below discussing a new book or group of books. The other Clubbers may interrupt them with comments and questions. And we hope you will too, by submitting postings to "The Fray," Slate's reader feedback forum.

Participants include:

Christopher Caldwell, a senior writer at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Press.

Debra Dickerson, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of An American Story.

James Fallows, the national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel.

Jodi Kantor, the New York editor of Slate.  

Sarah Lyall, a correspondent in the London bureau of the New York Times.

Nell Minow, the editor of the Corporate Library, which covers corporate governance and performance, and writer of Movie Mom, reviews of films and videos. 

Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation and author of the forthcoming Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.

A.O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times.

Judith Shulevitz, the "Close Reader" columnist for the New York Times Book Review.

Erik Tarloff, the author of Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book. (Click here to buy Face-Time and here to buy The Man Who Wrote the Book.)

Ted Widmer, the author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City and the co-author of Campaigns: A Century of Presidential Races, a former White House speechwriter, and director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

Marjorie Williams, the author of a weekly opinion column for the Washington Post and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

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, and Josh Daniel is Slate's managing editor. This week they weigh the merits of our patriotic greatest hits.

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