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American Greatness?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Make American Great Again” proclaims Donald J. Trump, and millions thrill at the thought. Millions of others cringe or bristle. National division and animosity escalate.

Could there be a way to talk about what is great in America that might bring us together instead of further apart? Are there distinctively American, widely respected, and for many of us genuinely inspirational figures to whom we could turn to for help and hope in a time of political and moral chaos and despair. And a time when we are all increasingly ghettoized into our tribes, parties, faiths, narrow partisanships, technological distractions, and tweeted slogans?

Henry David Thoreau, George Gershwin, Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King are four such figures. They exemplify a genuinely American greatness: the ability to combine beliefs and values, insights and actions that seem opposed; and thus to unite in one committed, creative person something new and genuinely hopeful. They were fiercely individual in aims and accomplishments, but also fiercely committed to the welfare of others or to a wider artistic tradition. They were deeply knowledgeable of past and present culture and politics, religion and science—but refused to be bound by any single school, political party, artistic style, or attitude towards nature. Undaunted by criticism for standing against the reigning common sense of their time, they carried the American revolutionary spirit forward by challenging our values, political structures, technological innovations, and artistic conventions. This is American greatness.

Consider Thoreau: not just a hermit in the woods, but someone who asked difficult questions about why forests were being cut down, whether the new technologies would really help us become more fully human, why there was so much despair under America’s emerging wealth, and how any of us could support slavery or aggressive wars. He loved nature and observed it closely with a care and attention bordering on the scientific. But he also believed that science was limited in truth and value if it wasn’t aimed towards the benefit of life. He was devoted to family and friends, and worked to help escaped slaves to freedom, but also sought solitude and what he called the Great Silence that lingers under speech. He learned from the world’s religious and philosophical traditions but instead of choosing a single one thought they should all learn from each other.

George Gershwin rejected longstanding barriers between Beethoven and Tin Pan Alley, jazz and opera—and thus helped create a uniquely American crossover style of music. He was a Jew accepted by a largely Christian culture with little contempt or discrimination, celebrated by America when European culture treated Jews with hatred and exclusion. As Gershwin could learn from both African-American jazz and French composing theory, so America was able learn from the son of Jewish immigrants what its own popular music could become. This too is American greatness.

Using scientific knowledge to challenge reckless and damaging pesticides, best-selling nature writer Rachel Carson helped create a new kind of public identity: someone who was at once scientist, citizen, and environmental activist. In a time of unchallenged sexism she became both a widely recognized technical expert and a political and cultural icon. Despite attacks on her as a communist, a cat loving “old maid,” and a lesbian, she was invited to give advice about the dangers of pesticides to congress and to President Kennedy. Her book Silent Spring won a National Book Award, sold millions of copies, and led to an hour long prime time TV interview. Like Thoreau, she combined a scientific sensibility and a deep questioning of the assumption that nature exists only to be dominated. Like him, she sought a way for humanity and nature to thrive together.

Martin Luther King’s moral and political genius was his ability to join Christianity’s vision of love and compassion with the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of human rights. Heir to Thoreau’s advocacy of civil disobedience, King gave it a distinctly religious flavor by seeing each person as made in the image of God. Rejecting both physical violence and verbal aggression, he refused either to hate violent racists or castigate activists who demeaned him. For King, as for Carson and Thoreau, an overriding love for life triumphed over meanness and resentment. Knowing that he could be killed at any time, King was willing to sacrifice his life so that America could fulfill its incomplete promise of universal rights and respect.

Thoreau, Gershwin, Carson, and King embody alternatives to our current political, moral, and spiritual malaise. If we far too often fail to live up their examples, they remain a beacon of hope of what American greatness truly is.