On Being American

I became an American on Nov. 4, 2010, at an elegant ceremony in Great Hall of Bullfinch's Faneuil Hall, Boston, beneath a vast painting of Daniel Webster debating the preservation of the Union with Robert Hayne of South Carolina, before the Civil War. A lady judge, herself an immigrant, extolled to us the virtues and responsibilities of becoming a U.S. citizen, and we each held the kind of small Stars and Stripes flag they'd be putting in Arlington and cemeteries all across the country in a few days time. I was by then 66 years old, and had been coming to America since I was 19 -- the last stint having lasted a decade. I was, I felt, finally ready.

Why do I think of this as I finish watching the final series of Mad Men? There are no immigrant stories, at least in Series Seven, the wrap-up, which I've binge-watched while it is still downloadable free on cable. Was it, then, because I felt sorry for the figure of Don Draper, the mad adman of the 50s thru the 70s, a philanderer and deceiver, lonely and out of sorts with his life and himself and hurtling towards self-destruction while trying to hang on to something, anything, that will save him -- to get away from all that is haunting him?

I'm not sure. I found the first episodes fragmented, filled with sordid sexual encounters and threats of predatory sex (for the women). I realized afterwards this must have been intentional, in order to explain why some of the protagonists, not just Don Draper, want out; want, that is, to find a more ethical, less dog-eat-dog kind of life. But watching them I felt Matthew Weiner's writing to be wooden, the scenes somehow stagey and unconvincing, the direction poor, and the cutting so uebercutting it made the episodes seem like scenes seen from a moving train rather than a magic luring us, the viewers, to project our hearts into the of serial of serial drama. I wondered what had so drawn me to this fictional saga of Madison Avenue, earlier. Had I changed during the wait for this final stretch?

And then, watching the last four episodes consecutively -- like smoking my last cigarettes before I gave up the habit as a student -- I was drawn back in. I began to care again about what happened to these people -- most of all, Don Draper. And when their stories were each wrapped up -- Betty dying, Joan being fired but starting her own company with her severance fee, Peggy realizing she is in fact in love with her subordinate art director who'd long adored her, Roger finding a sort of chiding happiness with an older woman who'll take no nonsense from him, Peter remarrying the wife he'd betrayed and left, and above all Don finally going AWOL from the company that has swallowed Sterling Cooper and reaching rock bottom, weeping and suicidal, before finding a sort of nirvana at a California Esalen retreat near Big Sur, I realized I must, finally, have become a real American. For I wanted a happy ending. And I got it -- aware that life isn't really like that, that few if any European dramas give into such audience expectation, but that I wanted it nevertheless. Unashamedly. A true American.

Bertold Brecht famously wrote his satirical musical Happy End as a sequel to The Threepenny Opera, but though it boasted fantastic songs composed by Kurt Weill (The Bilbao Song, Sourabya Johnny, The Mandalay Song) it proved a dud when first produced in Berlin on September 2, 1929. Weill's wife Lotte Lenya didn't perform in it, but Brecht's new wife, Helene Weigel, did. She was a political radical, and drawing from her pocket a sort of communist manifesto in Act Three, she read it aloud, halting the play. The audience erupted in near riot - especially as Brecht, ever the satirist, had asked for mock stained glass windows of Saint Ford, Saint Rockefeller, and Saint Morgan (J.P) to be erected on the stage, which really upset religious-minded German theatergoers. Unsurprisingly it closed several days later.

Though Brecht was given asylum in America during World War II, he became a victim of the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- who had no more taste for satire than Germans -- afterwards. Given that he was not a U.S. citizen and feared arrest, he testified, haltingly, on October 30, 1947. The next day he flew Air France back to Europe and the politico-cultural gulag of East Germany, from which he never returned.

Thomas Mann's love affair with America, too, came to a sad end in 1952, when the Nobel prizewinning author too returned to Europe, deeply disenchanted by the anti-communist persecution going on in the Hollywood film industry and elsewhere. So, too, did the British comic actor, Charlie Chaplin, that year -- reflecting later that he was "fed up of America's insults and moral pomposity."

Brecht and Mann never returned to America, but Chaplin, who had done the best of them all in Hollywood, did briefly, receiving in 1972 an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures. He made sure, however, to remain where, like Mann, he had resettled: Switzerland -- which became a sort of safe house for errant filmmakers.

For myself I shan't be surrendering my U.S. citizenship anytime soon. I have the opposite problem. My latest books about President Franklin Roosevelt as Commander in Chief of the Armed Services of the United States have been rejected for publication in Britain and "British Territories" such as Australia, South Africa and New Zealand -- because, I was told, Brits are no longer interested in FDR: the U.S. president who saved them in World War II. Until they come to their senses (the first volume was longlisted for National Book Award here, and shortlisted for the Plutarch Award), I shan't even visit the British Isles, but will stand by the banks of the Charles River, near my home and close to where British forces withdrew in 1776. There I shall watch on July 4 the great Boston firework display, hurling its version of the stars, if not the stripes, of patriotic American pride and community in almost psychedelic pyrotechnics of exploding, cascading colors into the late night sky.

My wife's not wild about the crowds, nor is my dog, but we'll go. It's the moment of the year when, as an immigrant American, I feel most grateful for what, in a somewhat peregrinatory life, has become for me, a writer, a genuinely Happy End.

Nigel Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston. He is the author of more than twenty works of biography, including The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942, and the forthcoming Commander in Chief: FDR's Battle With Churchill, 1943 (Houghton Mifflin, 2016)