Returning to Rockwell’s ‘Saying Grace’ America

Three score and twelve years ago, the Saturday Evening Post featured a cover for Thanksgiving illustrated by the celebrated and much-loved Norman Rockwell. It is called Saying Grace. Ten years ago, the original sold for $46 million, then a record for any single American painting. I am glad of it, because Rockwell had been scorned as a mere illustrator, a mere realist in style, and a mere sentimentalist in subject and treatment. I hope his heirs can take that scorn and break a bank with it.

It presents us, though, with a puzzle. We don’t wonder that there should be a fissure between what the self-styled experts were praising and what the public enjoyed. Such fissures do develop. They are not necessary: the epics of Homer were central to the Greek lad’s education, and it was not the few philosophers milling about who caused Aeschylus to be so beloved by the people of Athens. In the judgment of both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who were enemies of one another but who could be depended on for soundness of literary judgment, Charles Dickens was the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century. The people of England agreed.  So did the people of the United States, who lined up for several miles to get opening night tickets to hear him perform on the New York stage the characters they treasured from his books. When Italians came over to America, they carried their opera houses with them, and they were not millions of music professors who thronged the halls from New York to San Francisco to hear Enrico Caruso perform such grand roles as that of Canio in Verdi’s tragedy I Pagliacci.

No, it is not a new thing that the experts and the public should disagree, but rather that they should disagree so violently that it would seem that they dwelt in wholly different worlds. We are not talking about a public with debased sensibilities, either, since when Saying Grace appeared in 1951, television was in its infancy as were mass-marketed paperbacks, pornography was difficult to procure, Hollywood was still in its Golden Age, about to enter a decade when both movies and television aimed to bring the best of the playhouse to the living room, popular music ran from the lighthearted and simple to the extraordinarily sophisticated, even while sales of sheet music still outsold vinyl records, and the modernist devastation of old city neighborhoods had only just begun.

Nor can any deficiency in Rockwell’s art explain it. Saying Grace is accessible to everyone with eyes and a heart and a bit of dramatic imagination. The boy with his trim crewcut and his prominent ears that only a mother could love, and the grandmother with her old-fashioned garb, her umbrella lying on the floor next to her seat, are people that the viewers would have known, though it is clear that they would not expect to see them in the rather shabby diner where they are. The two young men at their table, who stare at them in a mingled embarrassment and incomprehension, would also have been familiar; a little the worse for wear, the blond, and a little boorish, his friend who does not bother to put out his cigarette or take off his cap. We can almost smell the soggy cigarette butts on the floor, and the wet teabag in the saucer in the foreground, where a man sits, cigar in hand, with a rolled-up newspaper, and apparently nothing better to do than to sit. Rockwell is a fine colorist, too, as the muted palette for this painting shows – the most prominent color, against the grayish sepia backdrop, is the boy’s white shirt and his yellow hair, and the white and red flower on the grandmother’s hat. Nor can you accuse Rockwell of naivete or of not having studied the masters of the past. If there is one painting that Saying Grace is meant to echo, it is Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, where something happens too that astonishes the down-at-heels disciples sitting at the table: for Christ breaks the bread and blesses it, and only then do they recognize their companion.

In Rockwell’s painting, the astonishment is quiet, puzzling, half guilty, as the prayer is quiet and innocent, and we are meant to hope that something more than momentary embarrassment will have entered the lives of the two young men, especially perhaps that of the blond, who looks like what the boy might someday become if he forgets to give thanks to God.

Rockwell was not a devout man. But he did honor devotion, and there I think we find the crack that opens out into a chasm. Antipathy toward his art was and has always been antipathy toward what he portrays in his art. His is no perfect world.  There is a lot of hard-working and early-aging poverty in it, and disappointments, and sometimes grave human sin. But it is in general a cheerful, wholesome, and ordinary world, wherein boys and girls do boyish and girlish things, and fall in love, and marry, and have children; and people call to one another across the fire-escapes; and a doctor might humor the little girl and listen to her doll’s heartbeat through a stethoscope; and a man can pull over on the side of a country road and cool himself off in a swimming hole; a world that is largely gone, without anything close for a fit replacement.

For as I write these words, I think there are two Americas, fast becoming not only irreconcilable, but inimical to one another, and not in this or that detail, or in this or that proposed means for acquiring a generally recognized good, but to the core.  The worst of the one America hates what Norman Rockwell signifies, and would look upon the boy and his grandmother with downright hostility. Theirs is an America of anger against the nation’s entire past and even against nature itself.  Such Americans hope to see large father-headed families fail. They are content to see empty churches go on the auction block. They garb themselves in the robe of righting past wrongs, and since people of the past cannot defend themselves, and since the past cannot be reformed anyway, they have an endless supply of things to hate. The best of them do not hate Saying Grace, but they do insist that the time for it is long past, and it is well for us that it is past. For we must be reformed, renewed, mainly by rejecting the supposedly limiting beliefs that Rockwell secretly shared with the boy and the grandmother he has portrayed.

The worst of the other America is surly, seeing through the utopian pretensions of their enemies, but having nothing to counter them besides a libertarianism stripped of any aim for which free men ought to strive, individually or together. The best of the other America, those to whom I most urgently direct my appeal, look at Saying Grace and say that what was done once can be done again, in a different form, doubtless, but essentially the same; that human nature does not change; that the moral law, though far more mysterious and manifold than gravity, is no less objective; that true and lasting greatness must be founded upon virtue; that virtues, though hard to win, are dynamic powers that build up the soul; that a nation that will not give thanks to God will soon have nothing to thank God for.

Yet these to whom I appeal are too often confused or disheartened, or they have, as I suppose we all have, made their compromises in a bad time, just to get through the day.

To them I say, do not lose heart. Truth is truth to the end of time. What if your neighbors scoff? Build, and give thanks to God, with good cheer and wholesome delight in the world he has made, and man in it, male and female. Your neighbors may join you. If they do not, what of it? You must do what you must do, and the first order of business is to emulate the boy and his grandmother, who alone among the denizens of that diner know what it is to feast.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Renowned painter of American life Norman Rockwell working in his studio, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, circa 1959. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. …Heartily agree with everything you said—with one exception: Pagliacci was composed by
    Leoncavallo, not Verdi.

  2. Growing up in Minnesota there were many cold afternoons where we needed something to do. My family bought numerous puzzles of the Rockwell paintings. It was a great way to study his many paintings and appreciate his art.

    Now days, I admit I have succumbed to the internet. Need to get into some old habits.

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