I am not one to wax poetic or fall into a patriotic froth as some folks are wont to do, but I celebrate my intellectual freedom, and defy anyone who would deny me the privilege of free-thinking. For me the 4th of July, or as it is known here in the US, Independence Day is more than an excuse to wave the flag and mouth hokey clichés to the effect of ‘my country is better than your country’ or ‘my flag right or wrong’. In my mind, true patriotism goes far beyond the obvious, beyond the visible demonstrations of ‘See? I wave the flag – I am a patriot!’
Independence Day celebrates the possibilities which live in the soul of every human being, and which our forefathers also saw and which they too celebrated. When you read their diaries and the historical accounts written at the time by the men and women who lived the American Revolution, you discover it was about so much more than simply breaking away from England. It was a time of revolution all over the western world.
This revolution not only happened in America, it happened in Great Britain and in France, and all across Europe. It was a tidal wave of freedom of thought.
They not only thought freely, they discussed their thoughts; writing great books on philosophy and natural history and writing some of the greatest works of fiction; works which still figure largely in the public consciousness.
The first American novel was William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, published in 1791. It depicts a tragic love story between siblings who fell in love without knowing they were related. It was considered risqué and pressed the boundaries of polite conversation.
In the next decade important women writers also published novels. Susanna Rowson is best known for her novel, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, published in London in 1791. Yes, an independent American woman had to go to England to get published! In 1794 the novel was reissued in Philadelphia under the title, Charlotte Temple. Although Rowson was extremely popular in her time and is often acknowledged as a trailblazer in the early development of the American novel, Charlotte Temple is often criticized as a sentimental novel of seduction.
Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton was published in 1797 and was also extremely popular. Both The Coquette and Charlotte Temple are novels that treat the right of women to live as equals as the new democratic experiment. While many of these novels were popular, the economic infrastructure of the time did not allow these writers to make a living through their writing alone.
That sounds familiar!
The first author to be able to support himself through the income generated by his publications alone was Washington Irving. He completed his first major book in 1809 entitled A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, but I am more familiar with his short stories, ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. As America’s first genuine internationally best-selling author, Irving advocated for writing as a legitimate profession, and argued for stronger laws to protect American writers from copyright infringement.
Books are unsafe things, and when a dictator comes to power, one of the first things they frequently do is burn the books which espouse ideas contrary to the new regime. Writers and philosophers become enemies of the state and risk imprisonment for perilous thinking. All over the world today, dangerous thinkers are incarcerated for having dared to speak their minds.
Independence Day is the day on which I celebrate the freedom to think freely about the possibilities, and to discuss and explore those possibilities in the written word. We live in a time where narrow minds are poised to snatch those freedoms from us, a time when the public mind is polarized into ‘us’ and ‘them’.
We run the risk of losing 236 years of the right to bear ‘thoughts’, dangerous, incendiary things if left lying around where children can find them. This is why I wave the flag and proudly barbeque hot-dogs and eat apple pie with my family every 4th of July. We will argue politics, and discuss religion freely. We will discuss the books we are reading and the impact they made on us as readers, and we will do it in the safety of my sister’s yard; protected by the freedoms firmly espoused in 1776 document which begins with the words “We the People…” and signed by the founding fathers.
That is a reason to celebrate!