AMERICAN SAUDADE by Charles A. Coulombe

Vintage America

On Memorial Day, as with Veterans Day, Washington’s Birthday, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and the other civic holidays of this country, I get an extremely peculiar feeling – one that I have a hard time describing. Oddly enough, although I am not Portuguese (though possessed of a number of half-Portuguese cousins in my father’s hometown of New Bedford, MA), the word that best describes it is in that language – Saudade. A.F.G. Bell described it thusly back in 1912:  “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

Now, I have to present here an important caveat – I am not known as a flag waver. I reject heartily the heresy of Americanism (in its Catholic theological sense). I do not believe in American exceptionalism, nor that we are the “Shining City on the Hill” or the “Last Best Hope of Mankind.” I’ve no use for the Puritans, overthrowing the Monarchy, forcefully compelling States to remain in the Union, Reconstruction OR Jim Crow – that detestable father/son team that did so much to poison our country. I have a deep sympathy for the Loyalists, the “Lost Cause,” the Copperheads, and Booker T. Washington. But my real heroes – save the Americans up for canonisation, Orestes Brownson, Homer Plessy, Ralph Adams Cram, Wilfrid Beaulieu, Flannery O’Connor, and some other obscure folk – tend to be foreigners. The Jacobites, Vendeens, Insorgentes, Hoferites, Carlists, Miguelistas, Papal Zouaves –oh, a whole host of people most Americans have never heard of, from Europe, Latin America, and the rest of the Anglosphere.

But with all that having been said, I love this crazy quilt country of ours so much that it is painful. Not for her ideology, but for what she really is – the land you can take road trips through, if you have the time and money: her historic buildings and areas, museums, ethnic folkways, national parks and forests (indeed, State and local parks and forests) – the whole incredible package. Believe me, I am 100% behind the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and all the rest of it. Leave me alone for a day with the Smithsonian Institution, and I am a happy chappy indeed. Don’t get me started on living history places like Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement, Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, or Greenfield Village. Much as I dislike FDR, I love the Federal Writers Project’s American Guides, and the murals and buildings left us by the WPA. Longfellow’s Wayside Inn claims my recurring allegiance, and visits to sites associated with him, Poe, Hawthorne, or Washington Irving are almost like pilgrimages to me.

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Which brings me back to Memorial Day and Saudade. For all that I dislike the American Civil Religion on theological and historical grounds, I miss the country of my childhood, wherein that false faith was truly believed in a way unimaginable for those who are younger than me – you’ll need to read the American Holidays series of Robert Haven Schauffler to get a feeling for it. Even the volumes on Christmas and Easter shall give insight on how devoutly those feasts were kept as secular festivals by the great American public. After all, the Supreme Court had defined that this is a “Christian Country,” whatever that might mean.

This was the America where schoolchildren pledged allegiance to the flag every weekday, as pictures of Washington, Lincoln, and sometimes FDR and (in my time) the recently “martyred” JFK gazed serenely down upon them (I was too young for school prayer). Where the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls, YMCA, and a host of others taught their young charges “Americanism”  (in the secular sense) – without anyone objecting to their bans on atheism or self-proclaimed homosexuals. Poppies in both the VFW and American Legion varieties were sold by veterans at bus and train stations, and elsewhere around Memorial and Veterans Days. Hereditary and local Historical Societies via the installation of plaques at various sites and maintenance of historic homes attempted to keep alive the memory and work of their “gallant forebears.” American Heritage magazine was wildly popular. Interfaith shrines such as those of Valley Forge, the Four Chaplains, and the Cathedral of the Pines allowed all Americans to worship whatever it is we hold in common. Norman Rockwell showed us how we wanted to look, and Irving Berlin how we wanted to sound. The Civil War Centennial illustrated how well the wounds of our bloodiest conflict had been healed.

It was not merely about the past, though. The America of my childhood was – in my memory, anyway – a much more prosperous place than the country in which we live today. Any Middle Class family – with some careful management – could aspire to live a comfortable life in the immediate, travel, put their children through college, and retire in a pleasant manner. Now, of course, if they scrimp and save, they might just manage to accomplish any one of those ends. The factory farms which are decried so thoroughly (and not without some reason) today, nevertheless meant meat every day on most American tables – a true Godsend for those whose memory extended back to the Depression. Indeed, much of the large living of the era was propelled by unpleasant recollections of Depression and Wartime shortages, although children of my age were usually not entirely aware of that. Men wore suits and hats, women dresses, and, well – let’s just say that the look of Mad Men could have been torn from my memory (though not, thank God, the plots!)

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Moreover, there was the future, epitomized by NASA, the 1964 World’s Fair, and Disney’s Tomorrowland – although I have to admit my own preferences ran to Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland,  New Orleans Square, and Main Street USA; the boy truly reflects the man. In any case, we followed the adventures of the Gemini and Apollo astronauts religiously, ate and drank Space Food Sticks and TANG, and devoured such books as You Will Go to the Moon. Some folk (though not my family!) looked beyond the Cold War to some brave new united world tomorrow, treasured the work of the United Nations, and happily trick-or-treated for UNICEF. Present day iniquities were being addressed by the Civil Rights Movement. Archbishop Sheen’s popularity, Grace Kelly’s Princely Wedding, the election of JFK, and the cult of Tom Dooley were all signs that we Catholics had at last been fully accepted. Certainly all would come right in the end!

Well, it didn’t. I shall not bore my readers with rehashing the story of our modern fiascos in Church and State. Nor shall I belabor the point that so much of what I have recited here was based upon illusion, and could not sustain itself due to its own theological or ideological contradictions. I know all that. Moreover, when I read or listen to the pronouncements of various senior clerics, I am reminded that they are still living in the immediate aftermath of that era, trapped in a 1968 of the soul. Moreover, the traditional Latin Corpus Christi Mass and procession I attended Thursday and the writings of innumerable young people online in support of one or another of the religious and political views I hold dear (and which were unthinkable in the mainstream for most of my life thus far) give me enormous hope for the future, despite the horrors of the present.

But I am a product of my time, and it will be an alien future, for all that it may well be better than anything I have experienced.  And so, my friends, I shall probably attend the Memorial Day Observance at Forest Lawn, and follow it up with a visit to the American Heritage Library in Glendale. Do not think that I have altered my views one whit – far from it. But I’ll be indulging my Saudade for my country – a country that is no more, perhaps never was, and yet, perhaps, may one day be.

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Charles A. Coulombe

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One thought on “AMERICAN SAUDADE by Charles A. Coulombe

  1. I so relate to this article, Mr. Coulombe. I’m the daughter of a man who fought with the 5th AAF in WWII — but have a Pat Buchanan take on that war. One of my favorite movies is “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (Cagney dancing to “Give My Regards to Broadway” is one of my all-time favorite movie moments, always bound to cheer me up!) — but know that WWI was the death knell of Western Civilization. I’m wistful for the 1950s I was born too late to experience — but imagine it wouldn’t have been so hot if I were black (and think the *overly-rigid* conformity would’ve been a drag). I guess dealing with all this wistfulness and nostalgia while knowing about the harsher realities can be summed up by the Godfather line, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli,” ya know?

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