Norman Rockwell and the Perils of Nostalgia

Reality seems to have a different meaning to many these days. To some reality is waking up to a piece of toast and coffee before the morning commute. To some reality is taking care of a family and paying a mortgage. To others, reality is waiting for the phone to ring with that job offer or waiting in line for that one hot meal of the day. Still to many reality is too harsh to acknowledge… too dispiriting to live. Whatever the distortion or perversion of reality in these formidable times it is imperative that we do not extort history to advocate our cause.

It’s easy to indulge in a Norman Rockwell experience now a days. The idea of a family sitting around the radio laughing while their dog licks the father’s face is a warm, friendly vision of life in America. The children’s lemonade stand and the school bake sale that covered the Saturday Evening Post for so many years make looking back in time fun and easy. However, these are paintings, art to be appreciated and enjoyed, not a record of history. Norman Rockwell himself had a different sense of reality from some of the very “everyday” men he painted. After all, his father was Jarvis Waring, a prominent and wealthy businessman. After earning a consistent place with the Saturday Evening Post Rockwell made around $40,000 a year… even during the Great Depression, something unthinkable for most artists, or most anyone for that matter.

At the age of sixteen, Rockwell was a bored teenager transferring from one art school to another. Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court was ruling case after case of attempted labor laws unconstitutional, in an effort to maintain laissez-faire economics, thus continuing abusive work practices. When Rockwell was seventeen he made his living painting pictures for “Tell Me Why” children’s stories while across town 146 young immigrant workers, all women, died needlessly in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire caused by dangerous working conditions and deplorable labor standards. At 38 Rockwell painted illustrations for new editions of Mark Twain classics. This is while tanks rolled into veterans camped outside the capital. They were protesting homelessness, the lack of viable employment and an unpaid bonus for their service; owed to to them by the United States government. That day, July 28, 1932 ended with the deaths of unarmed veterans and even children, at the hands of 400 U.S. infantrymen. Norman Rockwell was painting Huck Finn.

Now this is not an indictment against Mr. Rockwell by any means. A man is not to be faulted for his successes and to his credit he used his platform to aid the war effort during WWII. I simply think it’s important that we don’t look to Norman Rockwell paintings and movies about days gone by for our history lessons. Rockwell lived in volatile times. Yet, his art reflects a world of Anglo-Saxon joy… one with paper routes, not paper fueled fires… one with children playing, not children suffering under oppressive labor conditions or dying in factories. Rockwell’s dream world is a comforting one, to be certain, but we shouldn’t look to those days as better times because they were actually some of the most volatile times we as Americans had ever known.

The idea of fishing with “grand-pappy” is a simple, easy-living concept. Unfortunately, a lot of our grandfathers couldn’t even fish. In 1931, people were starving. They were unemployed, living in make-shift shelters and scrounging for scraps to sustain themselves. In New York the state’s Temporary Relief Administration arranged for jobless men on relief to get free fishing licenses. The demand for food was so great that the state’s office was overwhelmed with men clamoring for the opportunity to fish for their food or maybe make a profit selling fish. Thousands of men rushed the state Conservation Office, resulting in violence and disorder. Even something as deceivingly simple and homespun as the idea of one’s grandfather fishing can be distorted to support or disprove some argument here or there.

It seems interesting that many of the people who are attempting to discredit the New Deal and Roosevelt’s economic policies are some of the same who look back nostalgically to a simpler time. When the least people have becomes the most they ever know their reality becomes dreams, ideals and stories, but that is it. When we look back for life’s lessons learned we cannot use tunnel vision. We owe it to ourselves and our children to see history accurately.

History does, in fact, repeat itself. A statement stands out these days when we look back to the election. Republican candidate John McCain said “The fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Less than one month later the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was brought into law. This was after a series of prominent bank collapses and failures. The other man to have uttered the very same statement was Herbert Hoover. He said the very same words to a reporter in 1931, not even 18 months after the stock market crashed and brought the nation to its knees. How sad that we have forgotten the heavy costs of apathy and denial. Hoover’s comment reflected his reality, just as John McCain’s comment reflected his. One man lived in the White House and dined on seven course meals each night. The other man longed for the White house but didn’t really need to crash there. After all, he had so many homes he couldn’t keep count! Reality on the other side of either man’s comment was a growing fear that life as we know it may very well have ended.

The word “history” derives from the Greek word historia, meaning inquiry. History, even at its origins, is not about telling as much as it is about asking. The key is to ask someone whose answer is steeped in reality, not their personal reality but the collective and unadulterated reality, lest we be manipulated into believing lies and taking refuge in pictures of an idealized past. After all, even Napoleon had the idea. He said “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”. I should hope in the end we all agree the fable we will tell our children, when discussing these times, will be the one with facts, significance and reality.

SARA MANN is a Chicago-based flight attendant for a major airline and lives in her  hometown of Rockford, Il. She can be reached at


SARA MANN is a Chicago-based flight attendant for a major airline and lives in her  hometown of Rockford, Il. She can be reached at