Say the name “Norman Rockwell,” and immediately iconic images of vintage Americana spring to mind. His paintings for Boy Scouts of America and for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post all portray a vision of American life that we have come to believe is real—or at least should be real.
The problem is that Rockwell did not paint the reality of his own life: Married twice, not especially religious, a workaholic, a deeply conflicted individual who was lonely and depressed. He moved to Stockbridge, Mass., in 1953 so his second wife could be treated at the well-known Austin Riggs psychiatric hospital.
A New England newspaper a few years ago reported on Rockwell’s life, quoting one of his sons as saying his father painted his happiness but didn’t live it. “That was his life,” Jarvis Rockwell told the Berkshire Eagle. “He worked everything out in his painting.”
We applaud and revere the artist for his portrayal of life as we would like it to have been, and yet another character who suffers the same disconnect with reality does not garner our sympathy. Consider Blanche Dubois in the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Blanche also lives a tragic life but wants to present reality as something other than it is. Says she in the play: “I don’t want realism. I want magic. I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth; I tell what ought to be truth.”
Blanche’s solution is to cover a bare light bulb with a cheap pastel shade, so that things look better than they are.
In Blanche Dubois, we most often see a tragic and misguided figure. In Norman Rockwell, we most often see a heroic and patriotic figure. I puzzle over why this is so. Is it ingrained gender discrimination? Is it that one character brings us hope and the other shines the light a little too close to home?
True confession: I worry today about an American culture and specifically a Christian culture that papers over Rockwell’s departure from reality but demonizes Blanche’s similar flaw. Too often, we bind ourselves to an idealistic view of life that never really was and never actually could be. That’s largely what politicians have to sell us in their campaigns. And it’s the stock in trade of many an evangelical preacher.
I don’t know the answer to the problem, but it’s one I wish we could have a healthy discussion about. Surely, we all need to envision life more idealistically than it may actually be. I get that. But if we have any hope of making life—for us and for others—the way we most want it to be, we’ve got to acknowledge the starting point first. When we see the world as rose-colored because we choose only to look through the dimmed light of a colored shade, we lose motivation to advocate for meaningful change.
I’m struck by that line from Norman Rockwell’s son: He painted his happiness but didn’t live it. And lay that beside the words of Blanche Dubois: “I don’t tell truth; I tell what ought to be truth.”
What kind of life are you painting?