Thanksgiving Americana (Norman Rockwell and Franklin D. Roosevelt)

I can think of no piece of kitschy Americana as often ridiculed as this idealized image of a Thanksgiving holiday feast by Norman Rockwell. It’s been kicked around by the cultural studies people as an emblem for the politics of prosperity, smug American materialism, and conservative patriarchy.

What I did not know was that this image was part of a larger series illustrating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” And they come with captions to make the point clear. Rockwell’s image is part of series meant to visualize “a high concept” of against injustice, fascism and war! Depicted here is “the freedom from want,” the other three freedoms being “the freedom of speech,” “the freedom of worship,” and “the freedom from fear.”

Clean, polite, small town, Protestant and white, it’s not my Thanksgiving table. But the political context puts another spin, a liberal one, on an old familiar image from America at mid century. As as individual unit without the contextualization provided by the caption, the individual image is impossible to interpret, or lends itself too easily to snarky interpretations. As a part of a larger whole and interpretive frame, the holiday image speaks to the confluence and mutual anchoring of art, community, faith, food, home, politics, and ritual, on the one hand, and “strong” liberal principles, on the other hand.

These are the four freedoms grouped all together:

And here’s the full text of Roosevelt’s address from 1941:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor– anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

To that new order we oppose the greater conception — the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.

Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change — in a perpetual peaceful revolution — a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions — without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

To that high concept there can be no end save victory.

From Congressional Record, 1941, Vol. 87, Pt. I.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. He works in religion, continental philosophy, theoretical aesthetics, and visual culture.
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One Response to Thanksgiving Americana (Norman Rockwell and Franklin D. Roosevelt)

  1. Bill Plevan says:

    Great post, thanks. Sara and I were at the Rockwell museum a number of years ago, it puts his work in context very much as you did, as part of American liberalism at the time.

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