Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

Everyday Americans: Unknown Unknowns

Workers put the finishing touches on a 1949 Ford sedan, the car that many say is responsible for the company’s survival after the Model T. (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
In the hurly-burly of politics, we usually don’t stop to note our simple, unadorned love of the things that make this country so marvelous. That’s what we’ve asked our contributors to our latest special issue, "What We Love about America," to do.

Whenever I’m overseas for extended periods, I yearn for the American landscape. Raised on the Hudson and the then-undeveloped, inlet-and-bay-fractured eastern tip of Long Island, I have many times written about the farmlands and forests between the Berkshires and the steeply descending Hudson Highlands. And then there are the empty beaches of Amagansett, windy and dazzling, from which I used to watch distant sails shining in white as they glided over the cold patches of deep blue, the sudden bursts of sun, and the dark shadows of the Atlantic. Just the train ride out there on the Cannonball Express, its windows open, sparking cinders flying by and sometimes burning you, was beautiful and dramatic and is now gone.

But as I’ve aged, I’ve come to think that landscape is less an emblem of America than are its admirable and unsung people: at risk of parodying Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns rather than the known knowns. They more than anything, more than even the genius of its principles and the courage of its founding, are the source of my continuing love of country despite its troubles and failings.

As a writer, who by virtue of the profession could not settle into any others, I’ve had a hundred jobs and met a thousand people who, like most, will leave little to no trace in history, and yet, on the scales of virtue, far outshine most of those who, for a time, are remembered.

A lifetime ago, I worked in a factory, and across from me was Johanna, pretty enough when young, modest and too self-effacing, with so much goodness radiating from her that although she had no halo I sometimes imagined that she did. I looked at her a lot, the way a boy can look at a girl. She knew it, and with a slight smile she kept her eyes on her work. I’ve never encountered anyone more lovely or deserving, but I left, and she remained.

After my windshield was shattered in a Princeton hailstorm, I was led to a shop in a less august town, where, with the coordination of surgeons, young men my age replaced the curving glass. Most of them had just returned from Vietnam and were floating on air, savoring every move in what they did, every note of the music coming over the radio, every breath of air at home at last. Their happiness as they worked was a better expression of America than any rhetoric or essay.

Go to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, sit at the now unfortunately half-sized counter, and there you will see men of several countries and races working together in a ballet worthy of dancers. As soon as any one of them finishes something, he scans to find another and then goes to it as if attending a child or claiming a million-dollar prize, his satisfaction almost too palpable. Americans are most American when we work, because the bonds of affection and respect created among a free people at work are different than those among a people overly compelled by systems and masters.

I could go on about so many whom I have known: fighter pilots, farmers, cabinet makers, forest rangers, even accountants (the IRS has a very long list), or my friend, a tough cop, who, upon receiving an award for valiantly but unsuccessfully trying to save a baby’s life, broke down and wept on stage until he was taken into the arms of his very short female commanding officer. In the large and bustling audience, everything came to a dead stop, in dead silence, and we were all one.

These and the millions like them are the hope and sinew of America, the inheritors and guardians of its principles, good people present in all walks of life, and deeply worthy of our love.

This article appears as “Unknown Unknowns” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Mark Helprin — Mr. Helprin is the author, most recently, of Paris in the Present Tense.

In This Issue

What We Love About America


American Men

American men — with few exceptions — treat you like a human being, in a free, natural way, because they’ve done it from the nation’s youth.

Books, Arts & Manners


Most Popular


How to Bend the News

This, from ABC, is a nice example of a news organization deliberately bending the truth in order to advance a narrative that it wishes were true but is not: Venerable gun manufacturer Colt says it will stop producing the AR-15, among other rifles, for the consumer market in the wake of many recent mass ... Read More

Trump’s Total Culture War

 Donald Trump is waging a nonstop, all-encompassing war against progressive culture, in magnitude analogous to what 19th-century Germans once called a Kulturkampf. As a result, not even former president George W. Bush has incurred the degree of hatred from the left that is now directed at Trump. For most of ... Read More

Iran’s Act of War

Last weekend’s drone raid on the Saudi oil fields, along with the Israeli elections, opens a new chapter in Middle Eastern relations. Whether the attack on Saudi oil production, which has temporarily stopped more than half of it, was launched by Iranian-sponsored Yemeni Houthis or by the Iranians themselves is ... Read More

George Packer Gets Mugged by Reality

Few journalists are as respected by, and respectable to, liberals as The Atlantic’s George Packer. The author of The Assassin's Gate (2005), The Unwinding (2013), and a recently published biography of Richard Holbrooke, Our Man, Packer has written for bastions of liberal thought from the New York Times Magazine ... Read More