Notes from the road: words that bind a nation

On a cross-country trip, a book on the great sound bites of American history provides food for thought for the Monitor's language columnist.

On a cross-country road trip, I've found an appropriate travel companion in a book called "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History," by Jan R. Van Meter. It seemed especially apt just before the Fourth of July.

The book first came out a couple of years ago. My paperback copy was a souvenir of a visit to Powell's, a bookstore and cultural landmark in Portland, Ore., the starting point of our trip.

As the miles rolled by, we watched the landscape flatten from mountain to prairie and then turn hilly again. We saw the sky turn impossibly blue over New Mexico, widen out over Texas, and then fill with driving rain. We confronted the great nation as a physical place.

But a great nation is a collection of ideas as well as places, and the words that express those ideas matter. "The Founding Fathers knew the power of words," Mr. Van Meter writes. "Indeed, well before the Declaration of Independence was written, their words created the possibility of a new nation and turned untrained men with their hunting weapons into a force that endured to defeat the most powerful nation in the world."

Van Meter's book is essentially a retelling of various chapters of American history through the catchphrases and slogans that emerged from them. They range from John Winthrop's aspiration for Colonial New England, "We shall be as a city upon a hill," on through Ronald Reagan's 1987 plea, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And as I dipped into the book, I kept being reminded of either the phrases Van Meter discusses or the situations out of which they grew.

A visit to Hearst Castle in California recalled William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who called for war with Spain after the USS Maine sank mysteriously in Havana Harbor. "Remember the Maine!" was Hearst's (editorializing) headline in his New York Journal, as Van Meter points out, before it became a catchphrase of the Spanish-American war.

Another memorable line from that same episode was Hearst's instruction to the artist Frederic Remington, whom he had sent to Cuba to "cover," as an illustrator, the anticipated war: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."

Breakfast at our motel in Amarillo, Texas, featured a waffle iron that made waffles shaped like Texas. This prompted some musings on the shapes of states, and the way lines are drawn on maps. Van Meter includes a chapter on "Fifty-four forty or fight." This slogan was a call for the United States' northern border to be drawn at a latitude of 54 degrees, 40 minutes north – some 300 miles north of the present US-Canadian border. (Unlike Hearst's call for war with Spain, this slogan came to naught.)

When we stopped in Knoxville, Tenn., for Fourth of July fireworks, the concert beforehand included a setting of Emma Lazarus's poem, "The New Colossus." You may not recognize the title, but you know one of its famous lines: "Give me your tired, your poor."

This poem, about the Statue of Liberty, has been widely credited with recasting the meaning of the statue, so that for so many Americans, it's about not just liberty itself, but their welcome of streams of immigrants.

Lazarus's words, Van Meter writes, "became the expression of what the nation wanted to believe about itself, rather than what it was."

Words, no less than roads, hold a great nation together.

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