The spirits of Eric Sloane

We’ve been thinking a lot in these days of division, anger, and anxiety of Eric Sloane, dead now for more than thirty years, and something he wrote for our nation’s bicentennial.

He was born Everard Jean Hinrichs but he changed his name when one of his art instructors, John F. Sloan, suggested artists should use assumed names early in their careers so their developmental art would not be recognized as theirs in more successful times. So he became “Sloane” as a tribute to his instructor.  And “Eric?”   That came from the middle letters of “America,” an appropriate choice given what he became.

Eric Sloane was likely the nation’s foremost illustrator and writer about Americana, folklore, and country wisdom. He published about forty books known for their illustrations, perhaps, as much as for their written content.  For instance:

For the nation’s bicentennial, Sloane wrote and illustrated The Spirits of ’76, a thin volume that focused on “ten early American spirits which I believe have either weakened or vanished.”  What he wrote for the first of the spirits resonates today. The Spirit of Respect:

“I have often quipped that the best way to learn any subject is to write a book about it, and researching early American patriotism was no exception.  When I began compiling my group of vanishing spirits with patriotism at the head of my list, I at once began learning.  With frequent flag burnings, with the stars and stripes being worn on the backsides of blue jeans and the Pledge of Allegiance ruled out as unconstitutional, I presumed that American patriotism must be at an all-time low, and that it was the national spirit most in need of return.  As I researched and analyzed the subject, however, I soon realized that patriotism has become all too closely related with war: the most patriotic people in history (like the Nazis) were always the most warlike and ruthless.  Great thinkers, I learned, very often frown upon patriotism, and the more I thought about this spirit, the more I too wondered about its real values.  ‘This heroism upon command,’ wrote Einstein, ‘this senseless violence, this accursed bombast of patriotism—how intensely do I despise it!’  One philosopher called patriotism ‘the religion of Hell.’

“I had never regarded patriotism in such a light and I began to think.  I remembered my first encounter with pseudopatriotism about half a century ago while I was a student at military academy:  while folding the flag at sundown with a fellow student, I had accidentally let it fall to the ground. ‘You son of a bitch!’ my helper cried, ‘You let the American flag tough the ground!’

“That was long ago when obscenities were treated as obscenities and I wasn’t going to allow anyone to call my mother a dog.  A fist fight followed and I still carry a small scar of the incident. I suppose it was a mini example of how wars start, where there is as much punishment to the punisher as there is to the sufferer, all in the name of patriotism.

“Stephen Decatur’s ‘Our country right or wrong,’ had often worried me.  I found more to my liking, Carl Schurz’s ‘Our Country right or wrong—when right to be kept right and when wrong to be put right.’ And so I wondered if we have not been using the word incorrectly (or even the wrong word). I went to my collection of antique dictionaries. In one old volume such as might have been used by George Washington or Nathan Hale or Patrick Henry and other early patriots, I found the answer: we certainly have been using the word incorrectly.

“Patriotism in the old sense was defined as ‘The Spirit of acting like a Father to one’s country: A Publick Spiritedness.’  This definition is quite different form todays: ‘One who guards his country’s welfare, especially a defender of popular liberty.’  I recalled how Hitler described Nazism as ‘the popular liberty’ and his storm troopers were known as ‘defenders of popular liberty.’  War, I realized, has for a long while been waged in the name of patriotism instead of nationalism.  Nationalism has been one of the most killing diseases of mankind. The American Revolution was actually a patriotic revolution against nationalism.

“The difference between twentieth century patriotism and eighteenth century respect became more evident as I researched. Johnson said, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ and Russell said ‘Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.’ Perry said, ‘Patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinctions altogether.’ But Washington used Shakespeare’s words: ‘I do love my country’s good with a respect more tender, more holy, and profound than mine own life…After what I owe to God, nothing should be more sacred than the respect I owe to my country.’ I began to realize that the early patriot was more aware of his national position than the present day patriot.

“I suppose the first great American patriots were those fifty-six men who signed their names to their own death warrant on July fourth in 1776.  Yet their names are nearly forgotten to history; the average American can name only three or four of the signers of that profound declaration. One librarian was embarrassed about not being able to recall any others ‘besides George Washington and Patrick Henry’; of course neither had signed.  Soon forgotten, true patriotism is a very personal emotion, asking no reward.

“Looking away from the battlefield for an example of patriotism is difficult at first; but they do happen all around us and every day. I found one such example at a wedding anniversary dinner. I don’t like country club affairs and so I really had not looked forward to Haig Tashjian’s surprise party.  Other than my wife and myself, all were Armenian. A diminutive lady arose during the dinner and made a toast.  She confided that she was nearing one hundred years of age and she told how her family had fled in fear of the Turks, and how she came to America.  Then she told how America had fulfilled its promise of being a good home for Armenians just as it has for so many other European people.  ‘And so my toast,’ she said, ‘is not only for the wedded couple, but to the country that has made everything possible for them and for us.  Before I sit down, I want to lead you all in singing God Bless America.

“As the chorus ended I could hear the faraway strains of a rock-and-roll band playing in some adjoining banquet room; there was a meaningful hush as many wiped away a tear; then the dinner continued.  I felt unusually proud to be a native American, and thankful to Armenia for fathering such a gracious people. I had witnessed the inspiration of true patriotism, heroism in humility. Peace has just as worthy patriots as the battlefield.

In the beginning, the word patriotism came from the word pater (father) and patriotism was ‘a quality of respect of one who is devoted to his family in fatherly fashion’; it had little to do with war or nationalism.  Therefore, I offer that the word patriotism be substituted whenever possible, by the better word respect.  I find respect to be the vanishing American spirit most worthy of return to our beloved nation.

“Respect for family, respect for the nation and the land, respect for the flag and the law, respect for mankind and respect for oneself—these have been outstandingly wanting during the last few years.  Within the family, within the nation and to all other nations, the only hope for the survival of civilization is respect or love for one another. In the end, this is all that matters.

Native (-born) Americans are so frequently disrespectful to their nation that it comes as a pleasing and heartening surprise to witness respect for us from those born elsewhere.  The attendant where the Liberty Bell was shown found it interesting that those who most often removed their hats as they beheld the great bell were foreigners. Once two blind Japanese soldiers in uniform came ‘to see’ the bell, and asked the attendant to read to them the inscription thereon.  He led their hands over the raised letters and he showed them where the crack was.  He watched them leave, talking excitedly in their own language and he wondered exactly what their reaction had been.  But stuffed into the bell’s crack, he found two roses that the veterans had been wearing. ‘I didn’t think Japanese soldiers could have done it to me,’ he said, ‘but at that instant I had even more love for America, and respect for the old bell than ever before.’

“”Adlai Stevenson seldom used the word patriotism. ‘When an American says he loves his country, he doesn’t refer to the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.  Instead he means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.’”

Sloane’s other lost spirits: hard work, frugality, thankfulness, pioneering, Godliness, agronomy, time, independence, awareness, and an eleventh spirit—hope.

The Spirits of ’76 is out of print but it is available through the internet. My copy was published by Ballantine in 1973. It is pretty much forgotten in today’s social warfare.  But it might be good for people on the extreme wings as well as those in the middle to get it and give serious thought to those lost spirits and the challenge of finding them again. There is always that eleventh spirit.  Hope.

Let me know what you think......