We are in a patriotic month in a patriotic age. Our nation displays its colors, sings its songs, honors its past and argues its present. The sights and sounds of the Fourth of July all serve to remind us of our identity as a nation, but what does that identity mean? Four new books offer insight into this question.
Patriotic music is a staple of Fourth of July picnics. But where did these songs come from, and how did they become a part of our national character? Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue: The Stories Behind America's Best-Loved Patriotic Songs (HarperResource, $14.95, 223 pages, ISBN 0060513047), by Ace Collins, explores the history of our nation's music, from the grade school favorite "Yankee Doodle" to the modern staple "God Bless the U.S.
A." These are the songs that have led us into battle, motivated us to change and inspired us to believe. In each chapter, Collins reveals the stories behind our favorite national tunes, delving into the lives of the songwriters and performers who made them famous. The book also offers a look at the mood and mind of the nation during the time when each song appeared and shows how the songs themselves have been changed by the nation they praise. For those with a love of music or history, or readers looking for a patriotic lift, Collins' little book is a treat.
In the same manner, Stars ∧ Stripes Forever: The Histories, Stories, and Memories of Our American Flag, by Richard H. Schneider, takes a look at the history of our nation's most beloved symbol, from the early vague description enacted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, to the tattered icon rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center after September 11, 2001. The book is a collection of history, observations and anecdotes about "Old Glory" (including the origin of that name), set off by moving recollections from veterans, celebrities and citizens about their experiences of the Stars and Stripes. Schneider delves into thoroughly modern controversies about the flag and patriotism, from the Pledge of Allegiance to bizarre Internet conspiracy theories. In many ways, this inspiring book is as much a history of our nation and its attitudes towards patriotism as it is a history of the flag itself.
Exploring the meaning of patriotism is at the center of Caroline Kennedy's latest book. A Patriot's Handbook: Songs, Poems, Stories and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love (Hyperion, $24.95, 643 pages, ISBN 0786869186) is a compilation of opinions and art from more than two centuries of American experience. In the introduction, Kennedy calls the book her "collage of America," and an exceptional collage it is. From George Washington's farewell address to Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," Kennedy has created a marvelous mixture of speeches, opinions, lyrics and literary works about America and her people. As great as the differences are between the voices she selects (where else will you find Ronald Reagan collected with Cesar Chavez?), there is something uniquely American in every one.
Among the unique voices of America, few are more vocal and controversial than Alan Dershowitz. Built around an examination of the words and ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, America Declares Independence (Wiley, $19.95, 196 pages, ISBN 0471264822) is Dershowitz's latest broadside in the continuing argument over the appropriate relationship between church and state. Using Thomas Jefferson as both touchstone and target, Dershowitz argues that the founders, many of whom were Deists, never intended for America to be an explicitly Christian nation. Readers can (and likely will) debate whether Dershowitz proves his points, but this book stands as a testament to the diversity of opinion that can exist under one flag and that may be exactly what defines our nation best. Howard Shirley is a writer in Nashville.