Fourth of July celebrations haven’t changed that much over the years, as we were reminded recently by the words of L.E. Sissman, a writer for The Atlantic who died, much too young, of Hodgkin’s disease in 1976. Sissman wrote well about his life and times. Listen as he offers these thoughts from his suburban Boston home on the Fourth of July, 1975:
“It is an old-fashioned Fourth if there ever was one: after a few illicit firecrackers down the road last night, the celebratory sounds have faded to a desultory chain saw, the voices of neighbors preparing for a cookout and a few brave birds — robins, mostly — who are oblivious to the early heat.”
Those of us who lived through the 1970s know what that decade was like, as the nation reeled from an unpopular war abroad and Washington scandals at home. In the midst of this anxiety, American officialdom tried to assure the country by planning a grand bicentennial party, with observances set to culminate on the country’s 200th birthday — July 4, 1976.
Sissman, writing as the year-long wind-up to that big blowout was about to start, suggested that the real Independence Day could be found in simpler neighborhood celebrations.
“I can hear the sirens of the volunteer fire department now,” Sissman told readers. “There’ll be a parade of fire trucks . . . a drum and bugle corps, a scattering of veterans in costumes of assorted wars, some more illicit cannon crackers and salutes, a League of Women Voters’ flea market and a bright-red hot dog with bright-yellow ballpark mustard for me to eat and a bottle of cheap, but good, Genesee beer to drink. Best of all, I can promise you that there won’t be a single discouraging word about goals or ideals or a new birth of freedom. Just . . . Americans eating, guzzling, watching and generally enjoying themselves.”
We agree with Sissman that America’s birthday finds its truest expression in the lower case – in the backyard barbecues and block parades, in the modest celebrations of ordinary citizens with no title or celebrity.
Totalitarian or authoritarian countries often proclaim their national greatness by parading military hardware down broad avenues, staging mass celebrations that citizens attend to answer obligation rather than joy.
But the American Fourth of July, like America itself, is a marvelously decentralized affair — a holiday affirmed not by official decree or the thumping of chests, but by the private goodwill of friends and neighbors, sharing a meal over the patio grill.
That’s the essential magic of this holiday and its prevailing strength. Today, as in Sissman’s time, America faces discord at home and troubles abroad. But the essential goodness of our country endures, and the Fourth is an occasion to toast the longevity of the grandest experiment in human liberty the world has ever known.
May this grand old country have many more birthdays to come.