Thanksgiving doesn’t look like this.
Norman Rockwell specialized in bucolic images of mid-century American like Freedom From Want. From, the ruddy white faces of guys named “Tim” or “Jim” to the grandfather ready to carve the turkey to the white lace table cloth. It’s more American, more Thanksgiving than any image of the Mayflower or Pilgrims or Native Americans dying of smallpox.
But, Thanksgiving in 2016 really doesn’t look like that anymore. Today, there would be at least half a dozen iPhones sitting on the table. Awkward political debate would threaten to overtake the conversation before the Turkey even comes out. The pearly whiteness of it all merits a whole separate post.
Rockwell based Freedom From Want on his own family Thanksgiving in 1942. All the rosy, smiling faces around the dining table represent portraits of the artist’s own friends and family. But, the world outside Rockwell’s Vermont feast was hardly cheery — World War II and the Great Depression tend to have a dampening effect on holiday festivities.
Earlier that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set out the “Four Freedoms” in his State of the Union Address. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. And, because he didn’t have twitter, FDR enlisted Norman Rockwell to provide accompanying illustrations. The idyllic scene pretty much qualifies as allied propaganda. Indeed, Roosevelt’s PR strategy, and much of Rockwell’s work during this period, aims to champion American liberty and capitalism against fascism.
Freedom From Want remains such an iconic image 1940s Americana. One that we sometimes can’t help to aspire to. But cooking the Turkey is hard enough. Holding up family gatherings to an ideal glorified by American war propaganda is just too much pressure.
Despite his patriotic works, Rockwell often pulled back the glossy veneer of American society. His other famous work, The Problem We All Live With, shone a light on the ugliness of racism during the Civil Rights Movement. He understood the complexity of American life even while he showed off its best angles.
Maybe Rockwell prettied up his family Thanksgiving for the sake of the war effort. Brushed over some of Jimmy’s zits. Maybe he got a headache after his mother and sister-in-law got into a heated debate about what china to put out. That’s part of the beauty of American Thanksgiving. Nevermind what Instagram or war posters might suggest otherwise.