Independence Day

views updated Jun 08 2018

Independence Day
Richard Ford

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Independence Day, by Richard Ford, is set in the fictional New Jersey town of Haddam (reportedly based on Princeton) and also roams over Connecticut and upstate New York. The plot is not complex. Frank Bascombe, a divorced realtor in his mid-forties, goes on a road trip over the Fourth of July weekend in 1988. After trying to sell a house to a couple who do nothing but complain and find fault, he visits his girlfriend at her house on the Jersey shore. Then he heads for Connecticut to pick up his troubled fifteen-year-old son Paul, who lives with Bascombe's former wife and her second husband, whom both Bascombe and Paul dislike. Bascombe plans to use the trip to establish a deeper relationship with his son. They visit the Basketball Hall of Fame and then the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where a distressing and unexpected incident disrupts Bascombe's plans and forces him to end their trip early.

Bascombe's constant ruminations on life in general and in the United States in the 1980s give Independence Day much of its depth and character. The novel can be seen as an inquiry into the nature of independence, a quality that Bascombe seeks to cultivate and tries to pass on to his son. But Bascombe also realizes that independence is a complex notion that may carry its dangers, too, in terms of social isolation and lack of community. During the course of the weekend, he discovers a new sense of optimism about his future and his willingness to connect with others in a meaningful way.

Author Biography

Richard Ford was born on February 16, 1944, in Jackson, Mississippi, the only child of Parker Carrol Ford, a traveling salesman, and Edna Akin Ford. When Richard Ford was eight years old, his father had a heart attack after which the boy spent much time with his grandparents in Little Rock, Arkansas. His father died from a second heart attack in 1960.

Ford left home when he was seventeen, working for the Missouri Pacific Railroad and living in various towns in Arkansas and Missouri. He then enrolled at Michigan State University, where his dyslexia ensured that he read slowly. He later observed that this slow reading was excellent preparation for a writer who crafts each sentence so carefully. Ford received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1966. Two years later he married Kristina Hensley, whom he had met at Michigan State, and the couple moved to New York, where he worked as an assistant science editor. After spending a semester in a law school, Ford decided that he wanted to be a writer, and he enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine. He graduated from there with his M.F.A. in 1970.

Ford's early attempts to have his short stories accepted for publication brought only frustration. He decided instead to try his hand at writing a novel, and in 1976, A Piece of My Heart was published by Harper and Row. The novel tells the story of a drifter and a law student who encounter each other on an island in the Mississippi delta. A second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, about a Vietnam veteran who travels to Mexico to free a man from prison, followed in 1981. However, sales were not high, and Ford decided to take a break from fiction writing. He became a sportswriter for the magazine Inside Sports, but the publication folded soon after, and Ford decided to return to writing fiction. The result was The Sportswriter (1986), which sold more than sixty thousand copies and made Ford's reputation. This novel was named by Time magazine as one of the five best books of the year. The protagonist of The Sportswriter is Frank Bascombe, a novelist turned sportswriter who is plunged into a crisis by the death of his young son.

The following year, Ford published Rock Springs, his first collection of short stories, and was immediately acclaimed as one of the modern masters of the short story. His next novel, Wildlife (1990), was not as successful, either in terms of reviews or sales, but the publication of Independence Day in 1995 confirmed his reputation as a leading contemporary American novelist. Independence Day is a sequel to The Sportswriter and continues the story of Frank Bascombe. The novel was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It was the first novel to win both awards.

After that, Ford published two short story collections, Women with Men (1997) and A Multitude of Sins (2002), and a third novel featuring the character, Frank Bascombe, entitled The Lay of the Land (2006).

In addition to his writing, Ford has taught writing and literature at the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Harvard University, Williams College, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As of 2006, Ford lived in Louisiana.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1

Independence Day begins early on a Friday morning on the Fourth of July weekend in 1988, in Haddam, New Jersey. The narrator is Frank Bascombe, a forty-four-year-old divorced realtor, the father of a son and a daughter who live with Ann, his ex-wife, in Connecticut. Bascombe is about to set off for a weekend trip with his fifteen-year-old son, Paul, but before he collects Paul, he plans to visit his girlfriend Sally Caldwell, who lives in South Mantoloking on the Jersey shore. He feels their relationship may have reached a crisis point and that they may not be seeing each other much longer. But his main concern is with Paul, who has recently been arrested for shoplifting condoms and for assaulting a female security guard who apprehended him. He is due to appear in court on the Tuesday, July 5th. Since that incident, and Paul's psychological evaluation, Bascombe has tried to keep more in touch with Paul, taking him out and also talking to him in early morning telephone conversations. Now he will be picking Paul up in Connecticut and going on a road trip in which they will visit the basketball and baseball halls of fame. He hopes this will be an opportunity for him to connect with his wayward, highly intelligent but emotionally immature son and steer him back on the right course.

Chapter 2

Bascombe's day starts with a visit to one of the two rental houses he owns to collect the rent. The houses are adjacent to each other in a quiet black neighborhood. The house he visits now is rented by a mixed-race couple, the McLeods, and Larry McLeod tends to act aggressively when Bascombe stops by for the rent. On this occasion, however, no one answers the doorbell, even though Bascombe is certain that someone is at home.

After a quick visit to his office, he drives to a motel where he picks up Joe and Phyllis Markham. They want to move into the area from Vermont, and Bascombe hopes to sell them a house by noon. The problem is that the Markhams cannot really afford to buy the kind of house they want in this area, which means that up to now they have been disappointed with all the forty-five houses that Bascombe has shown them. When Bascombe arrives, he finds that the Markhams have just quarreled and that Joe is in a sour mood. Bascombe tells him he wants to show them a house in nearby Penns Neck, and Joe reluctantly agrees.

Chapter 3

Bascombe shows them the house, a remodeled farmhouse owned by Ted Houlihan, a recently widowed engineer. Bascombe knows the house is not exactly what they want, but he also knows they can afford it, and he thinks they may be dispirited enough to buy it. When he arrives, he realizes it is the nicest house on the street. Joe immediately inspects the house carefully but appears to be unimpressed, while Phyllis is delighted by what she finds. However, her enthusiasm is soon curbed when she finds out from Houlihan that the property adjoins a minimum security state prison. Houlihan insists that it is more like a country club than a prison and presents no problem to the residents of the house. But Phyllis is not convinced, thinking it might be a problem for Sonja, their twelve-yearold daughter and also indicating that she herself does not want to live next door to a prison. Meanwhile, Joe has changed his mind and says he likes the house. Bascombe tries to encourage them that the house is a good value, and they would be happy there. He takes them back to their motel so they can consider their options.

Chapter 4

Bascombe recalls the events that led up to his becoming a realtor. Before that he had been a shortstory writer and a sports journalist. His son Ralph had died of Reye's syndrome, and this loss had negative effects on his marriage, eventually leading to a divorce. Bascombe quit his job, moved to Florida and then to France, where he had a brief affair with a much younger woman, and then returned to Haddam and looked around for a fresh challenge. In 1984, he was thinking of reconciliating with Ann, but Ann announced she was getting married to Charley O'Dell, an architect about fifteen years older than she, and they were moving to Connecticut. Bascombe was deeply disturbed by this news, since he had never expected her to remarry, and they had remained close friends after the divorce. When she moved, he sold his house and bought hers. He then took some training and became a realtor at the Lauren-Schwindell firm in Haddam. He liked the work and felt happy with his life, which, broadly speaking, he still does.

Bascombe makes a second call on the McLeods to collect the rent. As he stands on the porch, a neighbor, Myrlene Beavers, thinks he is trying to break into the house and calls the police. Bascombe talks to Betty McLeod, who tells him that Larry is not at home. Bascombe knows this is not true. A policeman arrives, and Bascombe has to explain that he not breaking in; he is just trying to collect the rent.

Chapter 5

Bascombe goes to check on a hot-dog stand he co-owns in a semi-rural location near Haddam. His business partner is an older man named Karl Bemish, a widower. Bascombe discovered the place by accident and went into partnership with Karl to help the business out of a financial mess. He soon sorted it out, changing the name from Bemish's Birch Beer Depot to Franks and decided he would sell only root beer and Polish wurst-dog. Karl tells him he is worried that two Mexicans who have been driving by slowly, are planning to rob him.

Bascombe leaves Karl, and as he drives on the Interstate to visit his girlfriend, he recalls the sad fate of Clair Devane, a young black former girlfriend of his, who also worked as a realtor in the same office. Clair was murdered at a condo that she was showing to a client. Her murder remains unsolved.

He arrives at Sally's beach house in South Mantoloking. Sally is out, and he takes a nap. When he wakes it is twilight, and Sally has returned. He feels their relationship may be at a turning point, but neither of them says anything explicit to that effect. They have dinner, and at ten-thirty Sally says it is time for him to go.

Chapter 6

At a rest area off the turnpike, Bascombe calls his ex-wife Ann, who tells him that their son Paul got into an argument with Charley, Ann's husband, and hit him in the jaw with an oarlock, knocking him down. After this disconcerting conversation, Bascombe returns a call from Joe Markham, who has been leaving him angry messages. Markham says that he and his wife have now found another realtor in a different town. Bascombe then calls Sally, wanting to return to her house for the night, but she is not at home, so he starts off on the next leg of his journey to Connecticut. He pulls into a motel parking lot, where a number of police cars and an ambulance are assembled. After he pays for his room, he chats to Mr. Tanks, a guest at the motel, who tells him that two teenage boys broke into a room, robbed a couple, and killed the man. After chatting to Mr. Tanks about real estate, Bascombe goes to his room. He half-dreams, half-muses about Clair Devane, the murdered realtor, and the three-month romance he had with her one winter after she joined the realty office. As he lies in bed, he feels that the night's events have left him in a kind of limbo, unable to move. Death seems very close.

Chapter 7

In the morning, Bascombe sets off again. He calls Ted Houlihan to tell him that the Markhams are still thinking about whether to buy his house. Ted replies that he has some other people looking at it, which annoys Bascombe because Ted has signed a contract giving Bascombe's firm an exclusive right to sell the house. By mid-morning, Bascombe arrives in Deep River, Connecticut, where Ann and the children live. Under the mailbox outside their house he finds a dead grackle on the ground, and he wonders whether his son is responsible for it. He picks up the dead bird and throws it into the bushes. At that moment a policeman drives up and quizzes him about what he is doing. Having satisfied the suspicious policeman, he parks outside the house and greets his daughter Clarissa. He tries to talk to her about Paul, but all she will say is that his problems are all stress-related. She thinks he would be happier if his father would come to live in Deep River, or nearby. Later, Ann informs him about the seriousness of Paul's condition; he has been driving his mother's car recklessly (without permission and without a license) and seems out of control. She reports on the comments of Dr. Stopler, Paul's psychiatrist, and suggests that Frank also see Stopler, as a co-parent. They talk about their past relationship, which in Bascombe's mind is not satisfactorily resolved. He retains a vague hope that they might remarry, but they finally agree that it is too late now to fix anything that might have been wrong in their relationship. Paul arrives, smirking, and he and his father go to the car to begin their trip.

Chapter 8

On the journey, Bascombe tries hard to be a good father and selects topics of conversation he thinks will help him get through to his son, such as a discussion about the Framers of the Constitution. Paul, however, is not interested, although they are able to joke with each other. They arrive at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and look at the exhibits. While Paul wanders off, Bascombe calls Sally and tries to persuade her to fly up to Albany, New York, and join them on their trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But she declines.

After forty-five minutes at the Basketball Hall of Fame, Bascombe and Paul resume their journey, with Bascombe still struggling to find ways to talk to his son. They drive on across the Hudson River and past Albany. As they approach Cooperstown in the evening, Paul begins turning the pages of a book of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which his father really wants him to read, but he mocks Emerson's words and then tears a page out of the book, to Bascombe's annoyance. They pass the Baseball Hall of Fame and drive up to the Deerslayer Inn, where they will be staying.

Chapter 9

Bascombe goes to his room to rest while Paul wanders off on his own to explore. A little later, Bascombe receives a telephone message from Phyllis Markham, saying that they have changed their minds and would like to buy the Houlihan house. Bascombe tries to reach Houlihan to inform him that an offer will be forthcoming, but he cannot reach him. He calls Sally, and they have another inconclusive conversation about their feelings for each other. She agrees to meet him in New York the following day, after Bascombe has dropped Paul off at the train station.

Bascombe is hungry, but he is too late to get dinner at the hotel. He asks Char, the young female chef, if she can recommend anywhere for him to go, and she suggests a place called the Tunnicliff. She says he can walk her over there since it is on her way home. While he waits for her to change clothes, he is surprised to discover on the bookshelves in the parlor a book of short stories he published in the late 1960s. At first he plans to give it to Char, but then, exasperated by a greeting that has been written in it, which brings his troubled relationship with Ann to the surface of his mind, he hurls the book across the room. He then picks it up and puts it back where he found it. Char arrives in a sexy outfit, but Bascombe has lost interest in walking with her to the Tunnicliff, and she goes off alone. At that moment Bascombe hears Paul make a facetious remark; his son is sitting close by in a rocking chair and has heard the entire conversation between Char and his father. They start to talk about an incident that happened when Paul was a child, and for the first time they seem to be able to have a serious conversation.

Chapter 10

In the morning, Bascombe calls Ted Houlihan to let him know that the Markhams are about to make an offer for his house. But Houlihan says he has already sold the house to a Korean family. Bascombe threatens to sue him for breach of contract, although he knows he will not do it.

Bascombe and Paul go out to breakfast, where they have their best talk so far, and then on the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are some protesters outside. The nature of their grievance is unknown to Bascombe, so he and Paul take a walk. Bascombe is still eager to spend some quality time with his son. He takes him to a batting cage at Doubleday Field and tries his skill at one with the title "Dyno-Express," which has a machine that pitches the ball to the batter at seventy-five miles per hour. The machine pitches the ball to him five times, and he manages to hit the ball on two occasions. But then Bascombe and his son quarrel and start to scuffle. When they break away from each other, Bascombe tries to make light of it, but Paul is still angry as he goes off to try his luck with the bat. The first ball he faces hits him full in the face and knocks him flat on his back. He appears to be badly injured, and someone calls an ambulance. In the confusion, Bascombe's stepbrother, Irv Ornstein, who just happens to be there, tries to reassure him. Bascombe has not seen Irv for twenty-five years.

It transpires that Paul has been hit in the eye. He is transported by helicopter to the hospital at Oneonta. Irv offers to drive Frank to the hospital, since he is not permitted to accompany Paul in the helicopter.

Chapter 11

At the hospital, Bascombe waits nervously while Paul is examined. Then a young female doctor, Dr. Tisaris, tells him that Paul has a dilated retina, which is a serious eye injury, and they would like to get him into surgery before the day is out. Bascombe calls his ex-wife, who says she will get another medical opinion and fly up by helicopter to the hospital. In the meantime, Bascombe sees his son, whose is quite calm and not in any pain. To pass the time until Ann arrives, Bascombe goes for a walk with Irv, who explains to him his philosophy of life and his views on marriage.

Chapter 12

Ann arrives at the hospital, bringing Henry Burris, a specialist from Yale, with her. Ann persuades Bascombe to agree to allow Paul to be transported to New Haven, where Burris will perform the surgery. Bascombe talks to Burris and has complete faith in his abilities. He says goodbye to Paul, who says he will come and stay with him for a while when he gets out of the hospital. Bascombe is delighted to hear this, since this is what he has wanted all along. Paul is placed in an air ambulance, and Bascombe says a poignant farewell to Ann.

Independence Day

Bascombe is back at his house in Haddam, New Jersey, on the morning of the Fourth of July. He has informed the Markhams by telephone that they have lost their chance to buy the Houlihan house, and they are now willing to consider renting one of the two houses Bascombe owns in Haddam. He has also heard from Ann that Paul came through his surgery in satisfactory condition, although he would be at risk for developing glaucoma by the age of fifty and would need glasses long before that. The Markhams arrive, inspect the house, and agree to rent it. Bascombe then drives into town, observing all the preparations for the Fourth of July parade. He recalls two telephone conversations he had the previous night, one with Karl Bemish, which ended with a quarrel, the other with Sally. Because of what happened to Paul, he and Sally were unable to meet in New York City as they had planned, but she was very sympathetic when she heard about Paul's accident. After they talked, Bascombe felt optimistic about life and his relationship with Sally.

Back in the present, Bascombe watches some parachutists come down on the Haddam green and feels happy to be in Haddam on the holiday. He continues his drive and stops outside his old house, which is now an ecumenical center. His friend Carter Knott comes up to him, and they chat for a few minutes, after which Bascombe drives off to watch the parade. He feels optimistic that Paul will come and live with him in the near future and that he may even marry again some time.


Clarissa Bascombe

Clarissa Bascombe, the twelve-year-old daughter of Frank Bascombe and Ann Dykstra, is more emotionally mature than her brother Paul, even though she is several years younger than he, and she and her father have a good, playful relationship. She already has definite political views, declaring herself, like her father, to be a Democrat.

Frank Bascombe

Frank Bascombe, the narrator of the novel, is the father of Paul and Clarissa and the ex-husband of Ann Dykstra. In his mid-forties, he is a realtor in Haddam, New Jersey, an occupation he enjoys and performs well. Formerly he was a sportswriter for a magazine, and before that he wrote fiction and published a volume of short stories. A staunch Democrat living in a city that is heavily Republican, Bascombe hopes for a Democratic victory in the upcoming presidential election.

Bascombe has been divorced for seven years. After he recovered from that very turbulent event in his life, he entered a period of relative contentment and stability that he calls his "Existence Period." He is reasonably happy with this stage of his life, a life which he regards as "more or less normalunder- the-microscope." Bascombe sees himself as a reasonable man who looks at life honestly and tries to live as best he can. He believes he has found "maturity's balance," a kind of balance of opposites in which "interest can mingle successfully with uninterest … intimacy with transience, caring with the obdurate uncaring." As a divorced man who lives on his own, he has gained some independence, which he values greatly, but this has come at the price of forming close attachments to others. Part of this desire to stand a little aloof from other people is due to the fact he does not have much faith or trust in his own powers of judgment, so he tends to avoid making big decisions.

Two of the significant people in Bascombe's life express judgments about him that tend to undermine his own rather complacent view of himself. His ex-wife Ann feels some hostility toward him and is determined to keep her distance, even though Bascombe still entertains vague thoughts that one day they might reconcile and remarry. At one point Ann says to him, "You just want everything to seem perfect and everybody to seem pleased. And you're willing to let seem equal be. It makes pleasing anybody be an act of cowardice." Bascombe's current girlfriend, Sally Caldwell, also has an assessment of him that might be somewhat jarring to his self-image. He reports that Sally told him he was living in a state of "mechanical isolation that couldn't go on forever," and she does not wholly trust him. At one point she tells him he is "smooth and … cautious and … noncommittal," qualities that make it difficult for her to accept him fully.

Paul Bascombe

Paul Bascombe, the fifteen-year-old son of Frank Bascombe and his former wife, Ann, is a highly intelligent but wayward youth who has run foul of the law. He stole three boxes of condoms from a store and assaulted a female security guard who apprehended him. He now faces criminal charges of assault and battery. Paul has been evaluated by a psychiatrist who found no major psychological disturbance, and an evaluation made of him by counselors at a camp to which his mother sent him declared him to be intellectually advanced for his years but emotionally immature. One of Paul's problems seems to be obsessive thinking about the past. He is still troubled, for example, by the death of the family's dog, Mr. Toby, that was killed by a car when Paul was six.

Paul tells his father that he is frequently thinking about the fact that he is thinking, "by which he tries to maintain continuous monitorship of all his thoughts as a way of ‘understanding’ himself and being under control and therefore making life better." Paul is also given to making strange barking noises. He has a quirky sense of humor and is always making remarks that show his ability to play with words. He rarely gives a serious, heartfelt answer to his father's numerous attempts to get through to him, although Frank Bascombe seems to understand the boy's sense of humor.

Paul's appearance is not attractive. He dresses poorly and appears to pay no attention to personal hygiene. His father says of his own son that he is someone "you'd be sorry to encounter on a city street." When Bascombe picks him up for their road trip together, Paul strikes him as being suddenly taller and heavier, and his "gait is a new big-shoe, pigeon-toed, heel-scrape, shoulder-slump sidle by which he seems to give human shape to the abstract concept of condescending disapproval for everything in sight."

Myrlene Beavers

Myrlene Beavers is an elderly and rather deranged African American woman who lives across the street from Bascombe's two rental properties in Haddam. She keeps an eagle eye on happenings in the neighborhood, and when Bascombe visits the McLeods' for the rent, she thinks that he is breaking in to the house and calls the police.

Karl Bemish

Karl Bemish is the sixty-five-year-old owneroperator of a hot-dog stand called Franks in a semirural location not far from Haddam, New Jersey. He is "a big, sausage-handed, small-eared guy who looked more like he might've loaded bricks for a living." A widower, Bemish worked in the ergonomics field for thirty years but then decided to try something different. He bought a birch beer stand (calling it Bemish's Birch Beer Depot) on a whim, without knowing anything about the retail trade or the food service industry. He was successful at first but soon ran into trouble, lacking knowledge about how to put his innovative ideas into practice. Bascombe met him by chance and went into partnership with him, taking a controlling interest. He soon erased the debt and Franks became a profitable business.

Henry Burris

Henry Burris is a sixty-year-old southerner who is a highly renowned eye surgeon. He runs the Yale-Bunker Eye Clinic in New Haven, Connecticut, and Ann arranges for him to perform the surgery on Paul.

Sally Caldwell

Sally Caldwell, Bascombe's forty-two-year-old girlfriend, is an attractive blond woman. Her husband, Wally, disappeared in Chicago two weeks after returning from Vietnam, leaving Sally to raise their two children alone. In 1983, she bought a beach house facing the sea in South Mantoloking, New Jersey. She owns an agency that finds tickets to Broadway shows for people who are terminally ill. Bascombe has been seeing her for nearly a year. He describes her as "angularly pretty, frosted-blond, blue-eyed, tall in the extreme, with long, flashing model's legs." They appear to enjoy their relationship, but there is no commitment on either side to making it permanent.


Char is a single mother of about thirty who works as the chef at the Deerslayer Inn. She is outspoken and rather vulgar. Bascombe describes her appearance: "Frizzy blond hair, pallid indoor skin, blotchy where I can't now see, thick little wrists and neck, and wandering breasts not well captained inside her chef's get up." Bascombe arranges to walk with her to a bar but later thinks better of it and is glad he has avoided any involvement with her.

Clair Devane

Clair Devane was a bright and enterprising young black woman who worked as a realtor in Bascombe's office. Originally from Talladega, Alabama, she was a divorced mother of two children. After she joined the realtor office, she had a brief affair with Bascombe. Two years later, Clair was raped and murdered while showing a condo to a client. Her murder was unsolved.

Ann Dykstra

Ann Dykstra is Bascombe's former wife. She is now married to Charley O'Dell and lives in Deep River, Connecticut, with her two children from her former marriage. Ann initiated the divorce from Bascombe, against his wishes, when he could not get over the death of their son, Ralph, and left home for a while and saw other women. Bascombe is still in love with Ann and would like to remarry her, but she is decidedly cool toward him. She tells him bluntly that Charley is a better man than he, that she trusts Charley because he tells her the truth, whereas she did not trust Bascombe and believes he never told her the whole truth about anything. However, Ann's marriage to Charley is not working out well. She does not admit this to Bascombe, but both children tell him there have recently been fierce quarrels between their mother and her husband.


Erik is the young policeman who drives up just as Bascombe is tossing a dead bird into the bushes outside Ann's house. He is suspicious of what Bascombe is doing there and interrogates him.

Catherine Flaherty

Catherine Flaherty is a young woman with whom Bascombe had a love affair two years after his divorce. She was a medical student at the time.

Ted Houlihan

Ted Houlihan is a recently widowed, retired engineer who is selling his house in Penns Neck, New Jersey. It is the house that the Markhams are shown around. According to Bascombe, Houlihan "is a sharp-eyed little white-haired seventy-plus-year- old … and looks like the happiest man in Penns Neck." Houlihan has been diagnosed with testicular cancer and plans to go to Tucson, Arizona, where his son, who is a surgeon, will operate on him. Ted upsets Bascombe by selling his house to a Korean family through another realty company, even though he had signed an exclusive contract with Bascombe's firm.

Carter Knott

Carter Knott is a friend of Bascombe in Haddam, New Jersey, although they do not see each other often. A Vietnam War veteran, Knott was a successful entrepreneur and businessman. Now on his second marriage, he is wealthy and has retired from work to supervise his investments.

Vonda Lusk

Vonda Lusk is the receptionist at the Lauren- Schwindell realty firm where Bascombe works. She was best friends with Clair Devane.

Joe Markham

Joe Markham and his wife, Phyllis, are disillusioned with the public schools in Vermont and want to move to Haddam, New Jersey, where the schools are reputedly better, so that their daughter, Sonja, will have a better chance in life. Joe, who has a son by a previous marriage, is a former schoolteacher who has just found a job in the production department of a textbook publisher near Haddam. He also makes pots and sand-cast sculptures and has been quite successful at selling them. However, Joe is a morose, verbally aggressive man who is unhappy about the fact that he cannot find a house he likes in Haddam that is also within his budget. He is rude on a number of occasions to Bascombe, but Bascombe ignores his provocations because he wants to sell him a house.

Phyllis Markham

Phyllis Markham is Joe Markham's wife. In her forties, she has a son by a previous marriage and a twelve-year-old daughter, Sonja, with Joe. She occupies her time helping her husband's business by designing slick sales pamphlets for his work, but she has health problems and is feeling a lot of pressure as she and Joe try to make the move from Vermont to Haddam. According to Bascombe, "she carries herself as if there were a new burden of true woe on the earth and only she knows about it." He thinks she has a "malleable and sweet putty face." Phyllis shows much patience in coping with her difficult husband, and eventually, after a frustrating search for real estate, she is content to rent the house Bascombe owns.

Betty McLeod

Betty McLeod is the white wife of Larry McLeod. Bascombe describes her as "a sallow, pointy-faced little Grinnell grad, off the farm near Minnetonka." She is not a friendly woman and spends most of her time inside the house with her children. Bascombe thinks she always looks disappointed, as if she regrets the choices she has made.

Larry McLeod

Larry McLeod is a middle-aged black man who works in the mobile-home construction industry in a town near Haddam. He rents one of the houses that Bascombe owns. A former Green Beret, McLeod is an aggressive man and is difficult to deal with. He does not pay the rent promptly. When Bascombe calls on him to try to collect the rent, the realtor notices a large automatic pistol lying on a table, which makes him wary of his tenant.

Charley O'Dell

Charley O'Dell is the husband of Ann, Bascombe's former wife. He is a wealthy, sixty-one-year- old architect. Bascombe, who dislikes Charley and refers to him contemptuously as "the bricklayer," first met him four years earlier. He describes him then as "tall, prematurely white-haired, rich, big-boned, big-schnozzed, big-jawed, literal-as-a-dictionary architect." Charley does not get on well with Bascombe's son, Paul, and it also appears that his marriage to Ann is in difficulties.

Irv Ornstein

Irv Ornstein is Bascombe's half-brother, the son of Bascombe's mother's second husband. Bascombe has not seen Irv for twenty-five years, and then he bumps into him immediately after Paul is injured. Irv just happens to be in the same place at the same time. He reassures Bascombe, drives him down to the hospital, and tells him about his life. Irv works as a flight simulator; he has been divorced twice and spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel. He does not have a clear sense of where his life is going, but he seeks continuity.

Dr. Stopler

Dr. Stopler is the psychiatrist in New Haven, Connecticut, who evaluates Paul. Bascombe calls him a "fancy shrink."

Mr. Tanks

Mr. Tanks is a large African American man in his forties who wears a green Mayflower moving van uniform. He is a long-haul trucker. Bascombe meets him at the motel where a murder has just been committed. Mr. Tanks is divorced and says he virtually lives in his rig. He owns a house in Alhambra, California, but is thinking of moving to the East Coast. Bascombe offers him some advice about real estate.

Dr. Tisaris

Dr. Tisaris is the young female doctor who examines Paul at the hospital in Oneonta after he injures his eye.



Against a background of Independence Day, the novel sets out to explore the nature of human independence. What is independence? How is it achieved? Is there a price to be paid for it? How does independence relate to community and commitment and service to others? The novel's main character, Frank Bascombe, has attained a certain kind of independence. He has recovered from the turbulence that accompanied the death of his son Ralph and his divorce seven years earlier. He lives on his own, away from his two surviving children. This period of his life he characterizes as the "Existence Period … the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blow-up." It is a time of relative stability that involves a lot of solitude, but which is "self-directed and happy." He explains that "The Existence Period helps create or at least partly stimulates the condition of honest independence." However, this condition of independence is a rather cautious, limited one. Bascombe says he does not always trust his own judgment about matters and knows, based on past experience, that there are good reasons for not doing so. He admits that he ignores things he does not like or which worry him rather than dealing with them. In the Existence Period, he tends to keep others at a distance. A telling detail is the fact that he sees Carter Knott, whom he regards as his best friend in Haddam, only about once every six months, and even then they chat for less than two minutes and are careful to avoid any serious conversation. Bascombe is also reluctant to become deeply involved with his girlfriend, Sally Caldwell. He admits that he likes the thrill "of early romance yet lack[s] the urge to do more than ignore it when that sweet sorority threatens to develop into something else." Bascombe is wary of making any commitment to Sally that would involve the loss of his independence.

Bascombe also tries to teach his son about the need for independence. Trying to lead into the subject by talking about Independence Day, he plans to tell Paul that the day is "an observance of human possibility, which applies a canny pressure on each of us to contemplate what we're dependent on … and what ways we're independent or might be." Bascombe's goal is to help his son heal the wounds of the past so that he can become "free and independent rather than staying disconnected and distracted." He wants him to jettison the past, not to remember everything (like the unfortunate death of the family dog when Paul was six) and not to try so hard to keep everything under control. He wants him to develop self-determination, and this involves one's own sense of judgment. "A lot of things we think are true aren't … You have to make your own assessments," he says to Paul.

Towards the end of the novel, Bascombe seems to acknowledge that his Existence Period may not be as satisfactory as he has formerly thought. He acknowledges that independence is a "complex dilemma," and he is far more willing to engage more deeply with others, especially Sally, who comments on the "mechanical isolation" of his Existence Period. He still seeks independence, which he refers to as "God-required but not God-assured," but he also feels that he may marry again, and he certainly looks forward to his son coming to stay with him. The last two sentences of the novel, as he mingles with the Fourth of July crowds, suggest this new awareness of his necessary involvement with other humans: "My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others."

Continuity and Community

Since independence in human life can never be total, another theme of the novel is the search for community and the feelings of continuity and permanence that come with it. As a realtor, Bascombe meets many people who are in a transition phase in their lives, wanting to buy a house and establish themselves in a new community. The Markhams, for example, are leaving Vermont where they have lived for many years and want to put down roots in Haddam. But they find this easier said than done. Frustrated in their search, they stay in motels—symbols of transience and the random gathering of strangers— and end up renting a house rather than buying one. But once they have decided on this, Bascombe remarks that the illusion of permanence takes over, and they act as if they are long-time residents.

Topics For Further Study

  • What does Independence Day mean for you? How does the July 4th holiday differ from other American holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Memorial Day? How do you spend your time, and what do you reflect on, during these times? Write a personal essay on the subject.
  • Read Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" and make a class presentation about it. Identify the major points and explain why Bascombe wants Paul to read this essay. Is it a good choice of reading for Paul? Why do you think Paul reacts as he does to it?
  • Get together with a group of three other classmates and discuss what independence means to you. How are you dependent on or independent of your parents and other family members? Is independence a goal of yours? Are there any drawbacks to being independent? What is the relationship between independence and community? Do you take your values from your family, your group of friends, or develop them yourself?
  • Write an essay in which you analyze the character of Paul. What has gone wrong in his life? What are the underlying reasons for his being in trouble with the law? Does Frank approach him in the right way? Explore other ways in which to approach the character of Paul, including the possibility that there is really not much wrong with him at all. Does he remind you of anyone you know?

On his road trip, Bascombe also encounters people who are in transit and searching for a sense of community. Mr. Tanks, for example, who makes a living by moving other people, is estranged from his ex-wife, and virtually lives in his removals truck, is thinking of selling his home in California and expresses the wish to Bascombe to live in a "neighborhood," although he does not have much idea of where that might be. Bascombe's instincts as a realtor take over, and he advises Mr. Tanks about the current housing market. Bascombe instinctively seeks to help others, by means of his professional knowledge, in their search for community. One of the reasons he bought the two houses in Haddam that he now rents out was to establish "a greater sense of connectedness." He acknowledges that he lacks this in his own life, but he understands "the sense of belonging and permanence" towards which the residents of the area aspire.



The guiding metaphor throughout the novel is of real estate as the reality of life itself. A house is a temporary structure, but people take refuge in it as a safe place on their life journey. A house gives security with which to weather the storms of life and seems to give significance and permanence to a person's existence. But Bascombe concludes that the power of place, of a home to confer meaning on human life, is more a product of hope than reality. When he visits the home where he once lived with his wife and children, and which has now been transformed into an ecumenical center, he asks:

Is there any cause to think a place—any place— within its plaster and joists, its trees and plantings, in its putative essence ever shelters some spirit ghost of us as proof of its significance and ours?

He answers his own question in the negative, adding that people should "quit asking places for what they can't provide." This is the same sentiment he expresses earlier in the novel, when he visits Sally's beach house. The house is familiar to him in the sense that it has some significance in his life history and his memory, and yet it is also unfamiliar, refusing to confer the full measure of significance that he half-hopes such a place should. He concludes that people should "cease sanctifying places" that once held significance for them, because the truth is that in spite of what may have once taken place there, "Places never cooperate by revering you back when you need it.… Place means nothing." It is because of this belief that Bascombe values independence so highly. No one can depend on a house; one can only depend on oneself.

Historical Context

The Presidential Campaign of 1988

Independence Day takes place against a backdrop of a developing presidential race in which Bascombe and some of the other characters take a keen interest. In early July 1988, preparations were underway for the conventions of the two major parties in which each would nominate a candidate for the presidential election in November. Bascombe is a Democrat and hopes that Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, who is already assured of winning the Democratic nomination, will become the next president of the United States. Dukakis was generally considered, as Bascombe puts it, an "uninspirational" candidate, but he won the Democratic nomination because he took credit for what was known as the Massachusetts Miracle, the economic revival of the state during his tenure as governor. Dukakis based his campaign on his perceived managerial competence and ability to improve the economy by creating new jobs. Republicans fought back by trying to typecast him as an ultra-liberal, tax-and-spend Democrat. In the novel, for example, Karl Bemish, who plans to vote Republican, refers to Dukakis's home state of Massachusetts as "Taxachusetts."

Bemish is an example of those voters who were known at the time as Reagan Democrats. The term was used to describe traditionally Democratic, mostly white, working-class voters who switched to the Republicans in the 1980s, when Republican Ronald Reagan was president (1981- 1989). Reagan Democrats tended to perceive the Democratic Party as no longer working for their economic interests but being controlled by special interest groups and catering to minorities and other disadvantaged groups. These voters also tended to be more conservative on national security issues, an area in which Reagan was perceived as strong. They also supported Reagan's policy of cutting taxes. In the novel, Bascombe regards the Reagan Democrats as "turncoats."

The Democratic primary campaign in 1988 was notable for the success of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., who won eleven primaries, receiving a total of 6.9 million votes. After he won the Michigan primary, he was briefly regarded as the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, but he failed to hold on to his advantage, allowing Dukakis to capture the nomination. In the novel, Bascombe considered himself a Jackson supporter during some of the primaries but "finally decided he couldn't win and would ruin the country if he did." Bascombe may have had in mind Jackson's position as the most liberal of the Democratic candidates. Jackson aimed to build what he called a Rainbow Coalition made up of minorities, the working poor, women, and gay people. He favored reversing Reagan's tax cuts, spending more money on social welfare programs, and cutting the defense budget by up to 15 percent over four years.

Unlike Bascombe, most of the characters who express a political opinion in the novel are Republicans. Charley O'Dell, for example, is a staunch supporter of what Bascombe's daughter Clarissa calls "the party of money, tradition and influence." (Clarissa is no doubt repeating her father's opinion.) Irv Ornstein is also a Republican, who expects to vote for the Republican candidate, Vice President George Bush, but feels uneasy about what he describes as Bush's "indecisiveness." This was a common view of Bush at the time. Although Bush had been Reagan's vice president for eight years, he did not generate much enthusiasm amongst Republican voters. Bascombe, who lives in the solidly Republican city of Haddam, New Jersey (a fictional creation), comments that Haddam voters "love Reagan like Catholics love the Pope, yet also feel dumbfounded and double-crossed by the clownish spectacle of Vice President Bush as their new leader." Conservative voters were especially wary of Bush because they felt, in addition to the fact that Bush was not generally regarded as a strong leader, that he did not share their core principles on key social issues, such as abortion. When Bush first ran for president in 1980, he was perceived as a moderate rather than a conservative. Indeed, Bush had then been a supporter of abortion rights, but he had changed his position when the pro-life Reagan selected him as his vice-presidential running mate.

During the election campaign in the fall of 1988, Bush managed to step out of Reagan's shadow and assert his own leadership qualities. In a generally negative campaign, the Republicans managed to create an impression in the public mind that Dukakis was soft on crime. The Bush campaign also exploited Dukakis's veto of a bill in Massachusetts that would have required schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, implying that Dukakis was unpatriotic.

Although according to opinion polls, Dukakis held a lead of up to 18 percent over Bush in the summer of 1988, he lost the lead following the Republican convention in late summer. Bush went on to win the election comfortably, winning forty states to Dukakis's ten, with a 54 percent share of the total vote to Dukakis's 46 percent.

Critical Overview

Reviewers in general regarded Independence Day as a worthy successor to Ford's earlier novel featuring Frank Bascombe, The Sportswriter. According to the reviewer for Publishers Weekly, Independence Day "is an often poetic, sometimes searing, sometimes hilarious account" of Bascombe's life around the Fourth of July: "Frank struggles through the long weekend with a mixture of courage, self-knowledge and utter foolishness that makes him a kind of 1980s Everyman." In Newsweek, Jeff Giles shares this enthusiasm for Frank Bascombe, describing him as "a great mythic American character" in what is "a long, exhausting but finally exhilarating sequel to The Sportswriter." In Giles's view, the novel picks up steam when Bascombe arrives at his ex-wife's house and starts out on the trip with his son: "The halls-of-fame sequence is a genuinely heartbreaking study of a screwed-up father trying to reach his screwed-up kid."

In Time, Paul Gray also focuses on the character of Bascombe, describing him as an "entertaining storyteller … [whose] conviction that it is possible to behave honorably—even while selling real estate—and to be useful to his fellow citizens commands respect." However, Gray comments that Bascombe "has a way of attracting misery to those around him" and does not seem especially aware of this fact, making him "a bigger mystery to the reader than he is to himself."

Some reviewers had reservations about the plot, commenting that there were too few actual events to sustain interest in the narrative. For example, Charles Johnson, in the New York Times Book Review, writes:

[T]here is only the thinnest of story lines in the 451 pages of Independence Day. The novel often bogs down in repetitive descriptions of place and setting. Some events—Frank's effort to collect his rent from the McLeods, his arrival at a motel in Connecticut just after a killing has occurred and the mystery of the realtor's murder—lead nowhere.

Johnson does, however, acknowledge the "brilliant character sketches" in the book and concludes:

Bascombe has earned himself a place beside Willy Loman and Harry Angstrom in our literary landscape, but he has done so with a wry wit and a fin de siècle wisdom that is very much his own.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he discusses how during the course of the novel Frank Bascombe progresses from a too rigidly held independence to a more open attitude toward other people.

Frank Bascombe's journey through 1980s America is a secular one. In all his meetings and conversations with people, not one of them (with the possible exception of Karl Bemish) expresses a belief in God. The characters do not have a religious faith or suggest even for a moment that they look to God for support in difficult times. Bascombe himself tells Karl quite explicitly that he is an atheist. These are people who must make their way through the minefield of human experience without the traditional props and succor that religion has offered to troubled souls.

Given the absence of religion to help people deal with the inescapable vulnerability that is the human condition, it might seem odd—as it indeed seems to Bascombe—that his girlfriend Sally Caldwell remarks, while they are discussing how they perceive themselves, that she sees him "in an odd priestly mode." Bascombe responds that being seen as some kind of priest is the worst thing imaginable, "since priests are the least self-aware, most unenlightened, irresolute, isolated and frustrated people on the earth." Bascombe gives no clue as to why he has arrived at such a negative appraisal of priests, but Sally's observation has more in it than he might care to acknowledge. In a world that has no religious faith, Bascombe acts as a kind of secular shepherd of souls, helping people find and settle into their temporary resting places—their homes—where they can find shelter from life's storms.

Bascombe's dealings with Joe and Phyllis Markham are a case in point. In the course of showing them over forty houses in and around Haddam, Bascombe gets to know, like a priest hearing a confession, many of their secrets and a lot about their hopes, desires, and frustrations, not to mention the stresses in their marriage. At one point, after the couple arrives having argued on the way down, Phyllis even asks Bascombe to mediate between them ("I wonder if you'd mind just talking to him"). Bascombe is used to this kind of thing and is not bothered by "steely silences, bitter cryptic asides, eyes rolled to heaven and dagger stares passed between prospective home buyers." Mostly, in addition to offering whatever helpful comments about real estate that he can muster, he acts as a nonjudgmental listener, a person who can be a receptacle for his clients' anger and frustration without reacting in a personal way. When, for example, Joe Markham treats Bascombe with thinly disguised contempt and later leaves messages on his answering service, calling him all kinds of unpleasant and obscene names, Bascombe does not let it affect the evenness of his manner. Like a priest, he has a broad understanding of people's sins and follies, and he also has a certain sense of mission about his work. "I do like to help the poor and displaced," he later says to Karl, and when he finally manages to get the Markhams installed in a house they can at least tolerate, he takes his leave having "done the best I can by everyone" and asking rhetorically, "What more can you do for wayward strangers than to shelter them?"

But if Bascombe can be seen as a kind of Good Samaritan and secular priest, he is a priest without a theology to guide him. Not only this, he has little belief or trust in the strengths and virtues of the traditional family unit. It is hard to blame him. There is barely a single intact, harmonious family in the novel. Bascombe is unhappily divorced, with a fifteen-year-old son whose life is in crisis (a common result of so-called broken homes); his ex-wife is now unhappily (so it would appear) remarried; Bascombe's stepbrother Irv Ornstein is divorced twice and his second wife wants no contact with him. The unstable Markhams are on their second marriages, with Joe's son from his first marriage possessing a conviction for armed robbery; Sally Caldwell's husband, Wally, disappeared twenty years earlier and has not been heard of since. Marriage is thus presented as a risky undertaking, with the chances of success small and the possibility of lasting pain large. Irv Ornstein resists making any commitment to his current girlfriend, fearing that if he does he will lose his own identity and regret it for the rest of his life. When Irv shows Bascombe an old black and white family snapshot that he has carried around with him for years, it strikes the reader (and Bascombe, who calls it "[Irv's] precious artifact") as a relic from a bygone age. The family unit may once have been the foundation unit of society, but it can no longer lay claim to such a position.

With neither faith in God nor family to sustain him, Bascombe has cobbled together a kind of private, secular faith in the value of independence, which he has carefully cultivated during what he calls his Existence Period, the time of stability that followed the turbulence caused by the death of his first son and his subsequent divorce. But he has paid a price for his independence in separateness from others. Although he is helpful and considerate to people, he has guarded himself too carefully and lacks any really intimate relationships that might nourish his heart. He does not believe that he could ever marry again and refers to himself as a "suspicious bachelor." He has convinced himself that he is "more or less self-directed and happy," but the reader guesses that his assessments of himself are not always accurate. His ex-wife Ann, for example, says that he "may be the most cynical man in the world."

However, toward the end of the novel, after Paul's accident, a new quality enters Bascombe's life that has not been seen before. It is hope. Just as Paul is about to be airlifted to the hospital, Bascombe observes Ann shaking hands with Irv Ornstein. He cannot hear over the sound of the turning rotors of the helicopter, but he sees Ann's lips moving and Irv seeming to mouth back what she is saying: "Hope, hope, hope, hope, hope." They are of course referring to Paul's injury, hoping that it is not quite as serious as they fear it may be. (Their hope is rewarded.) But the hope seems to extend beyond this narrow meaning to Bascombe's life as a whole. When he talks to Sally about Paul's accident, he tells her of "some odd feeling of peculiar and not easily explainable hope" that extends to optimism about the future of his relationship with Sally and the possibility that they might actually make a commitment to each other. It is as if the shock of the injury to Paul has blasted away from Bascombe his carefully cultivated stance of detachment and forced him to become more real, open, and honest. He repeats his new-found sentiment the next day, as he looks back on the call he made to Sally from a dark gas station in the village of Long Eddy, New York:

I could sense like a faint, sweet perfume in the night the possibility of better yet to come, only I had no list of particulars to feel better about, and not much light on my horizon except for a keyhole hope to try to make it brighter.

The next day, Independence Day, Bascombe has yet another realization, this time about his relationship with his son, that "yesterday may have cleaned our air and accounts and opened, along with wounds, an unexpected window for hope to go free."

Bascombe, of course, still has much to learn, and in the later stages of the novel, a new approach to living makes its appearance at the periphery of his life. It is an approach that does not involve trying to control the way things work out. This is relevant for Bascombe since when Paul sustained his injury, his carefully laid plans for the weekend went badly awry. This was not the outcome he was planning for. There is a foreshadowing of this sense that life is not within one's control, however hard one tries, at the beginning of Chapter 10, when Bascombe is awakened early in the morning in his room at the Deerslayer Inn by the sound of a loud radio coming from outside. There is a talk show in progress, and a caller named Bob says the following:

You know, Jerry, the truth is I just began to realize I didn't care what happened to me, you know? Worry and worry about making your life come out right, you know? Regret everything you say or do, everything seems to sabotage you, then you try to quit sabotaging yourself. But then that's a mistake. Finally you have to figure a lot's out of your control, right?

Bascombe merely reports this without commenting on it, but another key moment comes almost at the end of the novel, when he watches four parachutists land as part of the Fourth of July celebrations. He watches them "careening to earth within five seconds, landing semi-gracefully with a hop-skip-jump close by the Dutch dance floor." He marvels at how they are able to jump from "the old safety, the ordinary and predictable, which makes a swan dive into invisible empty air seem perfect, lovely, the one thing that'll do." These images of falling are a metaphor for letting go rather than holding on for dear life to all the props and supports with which the average person surrounds himself. It is a kind of independence, a flowing in the moment without care of past or future. Bascombe comments on the parachutists, and the implied metaphor of letting go, that he would never consider doing this himself: "I … would always find a reason not to risk it … I'm no hero." But the reader may at this point once more find that Bascombe is what literary critics call an unreliable narrator; what he says about himself is not always the way things really are. After all, letting go is part of what he has been urging Paul to do, since Paul is irrationally clinging to the memory of things that happened in the long-ago past and is also busying himself watching himself thinking. The truth is that by the end of the novel, Bascombe has become much more open to real communication with people, which involves letting go of fixed concepts and being willing to change.

On the very last page of the novel there is yet another key moment. Late at night Bascombe is awakened by his telephone ringing. The person at the end of the line does not identify himself and just mumbles a few unintelligible sounds. But Bascombe responds by saying he is glad the person has called, and then says, "Let me hear your thinking. I'll try to add a part to the puzzle. It can be simpler than you think." This suggests his openness to communication not just with the people he knows but with anonymous voices and minds everywhere, as if he is more ready to absorb and respond to the stream of life as it occurs moment to moment, forming ever-new patterns that are held for a time and then pass on to something new. Bascombe may or may not be a hero, but it will surely seem to most readers that he is learning how to live in a new way, a way that will lead him to new destinations and places that perhaps he has never even imagined for himself. The parachutist jumps because he has trust and can leave the old and the familiar behind; Bascombe, although he may tell readers otherwise, is in fact in the process of suiting up, ready to take the plunge into the unknown, letting the winds of time and change uphold him and place him where he needs to be.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Independence Day, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Huey Guagliardo

In the following essay, Guagliardo discusses the "dislocatedness" and self-imposed isolation the protaganist experiences in a mobile society. In an attempt to connect with his son, the protagonist takes him on a journey to find their "place" in the world, and along the way discovers a greater understanding of the meaning of independence.

The psychological and spiritual journey of Ford's suburban Everyman, Frank Bascombe, progresses further in Independence Day, the author's most richly developed novel. Five years have passed, and Frank is now forty-four, and his son, Paul, briefly introduced in The Sportswriter as a tenderhearted ten-year-old who tries to contact his dead brother by carrier pigeon, is now a troubled teen who has been arrested for shoplifting. Paul is also prone to emit "unexpected barking noises," and he spends a great deal of his time "thinking he's thinking," that is, monitoring his thoughts in an attempt to gain understanding and control of his life. Like The Sportswriter, this novel also takes place over a holiday weekend. Its events begin on a Friday and end on Monday, the 4th of July, 1988. This time it is the nation's birthday that marks an important passage in the life of a Ford character. As Frank says, it is "a weekend when my own life seems at a turning or at least a curving point." The 4th of July/election year setting also provides Ford with ample opportunity to render the state of American culture in the latter half of the twentieth century; and Independence Day is clearly the novelist's most insightful commentary to date on contemporary life, with particular emphasis upon the dissolution of those important human connections long sustained by families and communities. A major portion of the plot involves an automobile trip that Frank and Paul take to the basketball and baseball halls of fame as part of the absent father's attempt to bond with the son he feels is rapidly slipping away from him. That Frank chooses this quintessentially American pilgrimage—the 4th of July, the possibilities of the open road, the halls of fame— as his means of bonding with Paul demonstrates the extent to which Ford's protagonist embraces suburban America's ideals even as his own experiences reveal the culture's many failures and breakdowns.

Frank's own life has changed considerably over the five-year period. His ex-wife, Ann (he now uses her first name), remarried and moved with Frank's two children from Haddam, New Jersey, to Connecticut, after which Frank moved into the house formerly owned by Ann and quit his job as a sportswriter to become a "Residential Specialist" for a real estate firm. As a result of these events, Frank has entered a phase of his life that is even more passive than his life as a sportswriter. He refers to this phase as "the Existence Period," which implies, among other things, a midlife willingness "to let matters go as they go and see what happens." In Independence Day, Frank's "relocation"—new home and new point of view—as well as his new job in an industry that supposedly stresses the notion that "location is everything" are extremely significant in expressing Ford's concern with the question of what it really means to locate oneself and gain one's independence in a complex and often dangerous world.

As the novel begins, we see that life in still-quite- prosperous Haddam has been somewhat devalued, along with its real estate. Crime and violence have spread even to this once-quiet suburb. The modern world is a dangerous place, and there seems to be no escape from life's randomness. Frank himself has been mugged, his neighbors burglarized, and a colleague/ex-girlfriend raped and murdered. Haddam, in short, has failed to protect its residents from the violence and uncertainty of the world. It is a community on the edge; or, as Frank expresses it: "there's a new sense of a wild world being just beyond our perimeter, an untallied apprehension among our residents, one I believe they'll never get used to, one they'll die before accommodating." As in Ford's other novels, there is once again a strong sense of the marginality of human existence, a marginality that Frank, once a writer, understands more keenly than most of his neighbors. The Existence Period is Frank's newest way of coping with life's unpredictability and with his own feeling of being "waaaay out there at the edge."

According to Frank, selling real estate is the "ideal occupation" for someone gliding along in the Existence Period. Frank regards the real estate profession, like sportswriting, as a peripheral occupation, as "being on the periphery of the business community." Frank explains that "the one gnostic truth of real estate" is "that people never find or buy the house they say they want." Instead, "The premise is that you're presented with what you might've thought you didn't want, but what's available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself." To Frank, this scheme makes perfect sense: "Why should you only get what you think you want, or be limited by what you can simply plan on? Life's never like that, and if you're smart you'll decide it's better the way it is." Being a realtor also provides Frank with the perfect position from which to observe the "dislocatedness" so prevalent in modern suburban life. As a realtor he must constantly deal with people who, like himself, are trying to find their place, to locate themselves; but he soon discovers that no one is really at home, that in a sense we are all homeless nomads searching desperately for what he refers to as that "homey connectedness." Always an astute observer of contemporary American society, Ford finds the realty profession to be the ideal vehicle for commenting on the rootlessness and sense of longing that are characteristic of an increasingly mobile population.

Frank's view of reality and of realty, his Existence Period philosophy that we seldom get what we plan on and might as well learn to accept the fact, is dramatized in a comical episode involving a couple from Vermont, Joe and Phyllis Markham, who are searching for a dream house that does not exist in the Haddam market. The episode also points to the disintegration of families and communities in American culture, as well as to a general pattern of rootlessness. The Markhams' lives have followed an all-too-familiar pattern in a society in which families and communities are dissolving. They were each married to another, but "spouses wandered off with other people's spouses; their kids got busily into drugs, got pregnant, got married, then disappeared to California or Canada or Tibet or Wiesbaden." The middle-aged Joe and Phyllis reinvented themselves, found each other, married, and built comfortable lives in Vermont; but, like so many restless Americans, they eventually decided to pull up stakes in search of a dream. Now they find themselves living in a motel and running out of money. Their "predicament of homelessness" is emphatically suggested by their beat-up, borrowed Nova with the "muddy bumper sticker that says ANESTHETISTS ARE NOMADS." On a "rainy summer morning" with "the seeds of gloomy alienation sown in," Frank prepares to show his clients a house "in the Haddam area," a suburb of a suburb, so to speak. Joe Markham, however, makes clear just how important location is to him: "I don't want to live in an area.… Nobody ever said the Vermont area, or the Aliquippa area.… They just said the places." Frank views Joe as a man "who's come to the sudden precipice of what's left of life a little quicker than he knows how to cope with." Frustrated after showing the Markhams forty-five houses, Frank tries to convince them to see things from his point of view and to settle for a house which, while below their expectations in a number of ways, realistically represents the best that they can expect for their money. However, the house is not actually in Haddam, the most desired location, and, to make matters worse, it has a minimum security prison in its backyard. Selling "the positive aspects of close-by prison living" requires the realtor's best attempts at "pseudo-communication." Although the prison behind the fence is an all-too-real reminder of the dangers lurking just beyond the perimeters of suburban life, Frank tries to minimize its importance with the less-than-comforting reminder that "No one knows his neighbors in the suburbs anyway. It's not like Vermont." In spite of himself, the cantankerous Joe Markham seems ready to surrender to the influence of Frank's Existence Period philosophy. Even before being shown the house, he ironically announces: "I've completely quit becoming.… I'm not out on the margins where new discoveries take place anymore." His poor wife, Phyllis, perhaps realizing that they have, in fact, reached the edge of their possibilities, unenthusiastically resigns herself to the thought that "maybe no one gets the house they want."

Although Frank's passive, stoical life in the Existence Period may help him to cope with disappointment and uncertainty, and in so doing provide him with a false sense of independence from life's travails, such a view of the world definitely has its drawbacks. Most notably, as he is well aware, the view can result in "physical isolation and emotional disengagement …which cause trouble equal to or greater than the problems" which it solves. As he explains, "[I]t is one of the themes of the Existence Period that interest can mingle successfully with uninterest … intimacy with transience, caring with the obdurate uncaring." Later, he confesses that "intimacy had begun to matter less to me." A certain disinterest or uncaring is often evident in Frank's dealings with others, particularly the homeless Markhams. Even more significantly, however, his emotional detachment is shown by his willingness to allow a satisfying romantic relationship with his lady friend, Sally Caldwell, to end without the least bit of resistance on his part. In fact, he admits to Sally that at times he feels "beyond affection's grasp." Most important, Frank may even sense and fear that, in addition to physical distance, an emotional distance is gradually separating him from his son, Paul. His ex-wife, Ann, views him as a "half-hearted parent" and suggests that he should think of his children "as a form of self-discovery." By the end of the novel, Ann's advice proves prophetic.

Frank plans the 4th of July/halls of fame weekend trip in order to connect with Paul and help the boy to find his way in the world, but the trip ends up being more a journey of discovery for the father than it is for the son. Frank has brought along two "key ‘texts’ for communicating" with Paul on this "voyage meant to instruct," Emerson's "Self- Reliance" and Carl Becker's The Declaration of Independence. Frank explains: "The impulse to read Self-Reliance is significant here, as is the holiday itself—my favorite secular one for being public and for its implicit goal of leaving us only as it found us: free." Believing that "independence is … what [Paul] lacks—independence from whatever holds him captive: memory, history, bad events he struggles with, can't control, but feels he should," Frank hopes to initiate his son into some of the more useful tenets of his own Existence Period philosophy. But perhaps it is Frank's own gradual emergence from the Existence Period, his growing realization that "laissez-faire is not precisely the same as independence," that "independence and isolation [are] not the same," which allows him to embark on this journey that will take both Paul and himself "From Fragmentation to Unity and Independence."

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Sportswriter (1986) is the first of Ford's novels to feature Frank Bascombe, who at this time is a sportswriter, struggling to come to terms with the death of his older son, Ralph, from Reye's syndrome, and his recent divorce. The novel takes place over an Easter weekend, during which Bascombe shows he is able to survive but is unable to make deep contact with others.
  • Rabbit at Rest (1990), by John Updike, is the fourth and final volume in Updike's saga about the life and times of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Set in Pennsylvania in 1989, Rabbit is now fifty-five years old, a sick man who has premonitions of death. Like Independence Day, Updike's novel presents the protagonist's observations, memories, and reflections in the United States in the late 1980s, a time of large government budget deficits, terrorism, AIDS, drug abuse, junk food, and environmental decay, to name only a few of the negative trends of the decade.
  • Nobody's Fool (1993), by Richard Russo, is set in a small town in upstate New York and features the problem-strewn life of Sully, a sixtyyear- old man who is still haunted by the memory of an abusive father. In addition, Sully has troubles with his landlady, who wants to evict him; his estranged son; his ex-wife; and his longtime girlfriend. In addition to the characterization, the novel is notable for the author's wit and his knowledge of the small-town setting.
  • Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s (1994), by Michael Schaller, is an even-handed account of the Reagan presidency that gives full measure to Reagan's achievements in restoring confidence to the United States but which also sheds light on the less attractive sides of the Reagan legacy, including the growth of income inequality despite economic recovery and growth.

Frank's pairing of the words "unity" and "independence" is an important one, for it is evidence of his intuitive understanding that true freedom requires strengthening, not severing, ties with others. In fact, Frank tries to drive this point home to Paul by explaining that the founding fathers "wanted to be free to make new mistakes, not just keep making the same old ones over and over as separate colonies.… [Thus] they decided to band together and be independent and were willing to sacrifice some controls they'd always had in hopes of getting something better—in their case, better trade with the outside world." The importance of strengthening ties, of "establishing a greater sense of connectedness," is further emphasized in the novel in a variety of subtle ways: by the pair of tiny ribbon bows which Clarissa, Frank's daughter, gives to her father and brother before they embark on their journey; by the bow tie pasta which Sally Caldwell prepares especially for Frank; and by a seemingly offhand reference which Frank makes to "the poignant line" in Thornton Wilder's nostalgic Our Town. Wilder's decidedly American play, of course, is also about making connections—to a family, to a community, and to a nation—and the importance of such connections is expressed by that play's leitmotif, "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds." While Our Town depicts a simpler life in the past, Ford's equally American novel depicts "the perilous character of life" in the present time when the ties are becoming frayed, that is, when the most important human connections are in a state of dissolution.

If true independence requires solidarity with others, it also requires surrendering the desire for control and accepting one's connection to the past as a useful guide to living in the present. In his own life, Frank has had his difficulties in all three areas. He maintains a posture of detachment from others; he vacillates between a desire to control life and a desire to surrender to it, and he would like to jettison much of his past. As Frank puts it, "[W]hen you're young your opponent is the future; but when you're not young, your opponent's the past and everything you've done in it and the problem of getting away from it. (My son Paul may be an exception.)" In The Sportswriter, Frank had observed that "You can get detached from your beginnings … just by life itself, fate, the tug of the everpresent." There is a scene at the Deerslayer Inn in Cooperstown in which Frank discovers a link to the past of which he, as much as Paul, is a captive. The bad memories of a failed marriage and of other events which he regrets and would like to forget all return when he finds an old copy of a book of short stories that he once published. He looks at the photograph on the dust jacket depicting an image of himself as a young writer, an image which may remind the reader of Harry Quinn, a man who chose to reject the past and to live in the moment, and which also serves as a reminder of Ford's view of the writer's "marginality in our culture": "I take a look at the … author photo … a young man, though this time with a completely unwarranted confidence etched in his skinny mouth, ludicrously holding a beer and smoking a cigarette (!), an empty sun-lit (possibly Mexican) barroom and tables behind, staring fixedly at the camera as though he meant to say: ‘Yep, you just about have to live out here in the wild margins to get this puppy done the way God intended. And you probably couldn't hack it, if you want to know the gospel.’ And I, of course, couldn't hack it; chose, in fact, a much easier puppy on a much less wild margin."

Although Frank's peripheral, Existence Period life in the suburbs of New Jersey is considerably "less wild" than either Harry's Mexico or the young Frank's marginalized life as a writer, it is, in its own way, fraught with perils; and Frank is only deceiving himself when he refuses to acknowledge the fact that he is as much a captive of events beyond his control as is his son.

For much of the novel father and son cannot seem to connect. Frank frets about "[n]ot owning the right language" to communicate with a boy who has erected his own protective barriers—his periodic barking noises and his habit of wearing headphones—against human contact. Indeed, in Independence Day, there is a great deal of emphasis upon the role that language plays in helping one to achieve or avoid connections with others. As Frank looks over the copy of his old collection of short stories, he takes some satisfaction in the knowledge that the book is "still striving to the purposes I meant it to: staging raids on the inarticulate, being an ax for the frozen sea within us, providing the satisfactions of belief in the general mess of imprecision." As he tries to connect with Paul the next morning, Frank expresses his faith in the affirmative power of language: "My trust has always been that words can make most things better and there's nothing that can't be improved on. But words are required." Of course, Frank is also experienced in using language to distance himself from others. The pride that Frank takes in his skillful use of "a form of strategizing pseudo-communication" as a realtor comes to mind, along with his attempts at "pseudo-intimacy" with Sally Caldwell. With Paul, however, Frank's failure to find the right language is quite painful, leaving him as "lonely as a shipwreck." At times even their "oldest-timiest, most reliable, jokey way of conducting father-son business" fails, and their "words get carried off in the breeze, with no one to care if [they] speak the intricate language of love or don't."

After a visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame and a night spent at the Deerslayer, father and son finally begin to make some progress toward meaningful communication; but just as the two seem on the verge of connecting, the trip ends abruptly when Paul is injured in a batting cage accident. The boy steps face-first into a fastball from a pitching machine, a device that represents the many things in life over which we have little or no control. Frank has tried to teach Paul to "let some things go" and surrender to life's uncertainties: "you're trying to keep too much under control, son, and it's holding you back." Ironically, though, Frank himself must relearn that very lesson, and it is the injured Paul who sends his father the message: "Tell my dad he tries to control too much. He worries too much too." Indeed, although Frank has been willing to give in to uncertainty in many areas of his life, he has been as unwilling as Robard Hewes or Harry Quinn to surrender to the affection of another.

As Frank ministers to his injured son, a connection from the past steps from a crowd of onlookers to minister to Frank. It is Irv Ornstein, a step-brother whom he has not seen in twenty-five years. Interestingly, in The Sportswriter it was Irv Ornstein who, in a roundabout way, was responsible for helping Frank to connect with his relatives in Florida. Irv offers to drive Frank to the hospital as Paul is taken away in an ambulance, and Frank surrenders to Irv's "full authority." At the hospital where Paul's injuries are treated, Irv and Frank become reacquainted. Irv, it seems, is "going through an ‘odd passage’ in life" which, in many ways, mirrors Frank's own experience. A designer of flight simulators, Irv feels as if he is living a simulated existence. Like Frank, he is unable to commit to a relationship. As Frank puts it, "[Irv] complains of feeling detached from his own personal history, which has eventuated in a fear … that he is diminishing; and if not in an actual physical sense, then definitely in a spiritual one." Once again we have the idea, also expressed by Harry Quinn, that the person who tries to protect himself from life's uncertainties ends up with nothing and, in fact, runs the risk of being absorbed into nothingness. Frank, who himself has occasionally experienced a "‘fear of disappearance,’" can easily relate to such feelings; and he concludes that "Irv is entering his own Existence Period, complete with all the good and not-so-good trimmings, just as it seems I'm exiting it in a pitch-and-tumble mode." It is, of course, possible that Frank is merely experiencing an illusion, what he himself refers to as "one of the Existence Period's bedrock paradoxes … that just when you think you're emerging, you may actually be wading further in." Nevertheless, Paul's accident and the chance meeting with "Irv-the-solicitous" seem to provide the impetus needed for Frank finally to exit from and advance beyond the Existence Period. As Irv says, "Incidents we can't control make us what we are." Or, as Frank himself says, "[T]here's nothing like tragedy or at least a grave injury or major inconvenience to cut through red tape and bullshit and reveal anyone's best nature." Frank's encounter with Irv might be compared to the reader's encounter with Ford's novel, for just as the feeling of solidarity with the sympathetic Irv seems to release Frank from his isolation, so the reader may be freed from his or her own isolation by the same feeling of solidarity with the author and his characters.

The novel ends on Independence Day, with Frank's having gained independence from his self-imposed isolation and from his fear of emotional engagement. He makes progress toward improving his strained relationship with his ex-wife, Ann, and he proposes that Paul change locations and come to live with him. He even manages to find a suitable location (one of his own rental houses) for the wandering Markhams. "What more can you do for wayward strangers than to shelter them?" he says. More important, Frank reconciles with Sally Caldwell, after a long and intimate telephone conversation during which they discuss "possibilities for commitment." He looks with hope toward the future, to a possible marriage with Sally, and to the "Permanent Period" of his life, which will surely be marked by that "greater sense of connectedness" for which he has been searching.

Frank's reference to the "Permanent Period" echoes a passage from one of Ford's own essays, entitled "Accommodations," in which the author reminisces about spending a large part of his childhood in his grandfather's hotel. "In the hotel," writes Ford, "there was no center to things, nor was I one.… I simply stood alongside.… And what I thought about it was this: this is the actual life now, not a stopover, a diversion, or an oddment in time, but the permanent life, the one which will provide history, memory, the one I'll be responsible for in the long run." According to Ford, this type of marginalized life, a life without a

center, taught him that "Home is finally a variable concept." Such a life, he says, "promotes a cool two-mindedness: one is both steady and in a sea that passes with tides. Accommodation is what's wanted, a replenished idea of permanence and transience …" Like Ford himself, Frank Bascombe seems to have developed a certain ambivalence, or "two-mindedness," with respect to his feelings of marginalization. The "Residential Specialist," whose job it is to find accommodations for others, seems to have accommodated himself to the notion that being truly at home may not be possible in a world where human beings so often feel like homeless nomads or castaways. Perhaps a clean, newly renovated "rental" is the best accommodation one could hope for in either a fluctuating realty market or a chaotic world. Indeed, the house that Frank offers to the Markhams, with its "new white metal siding and new three-way windows with plastic screens glistening dully in the sunlight," might be compared to Hemingway's little café, that symbol of light and order in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." While Frank may seem as resigned to his fate as any Hemingway hero, at the same time he discovers that a "homey connectedness" with others might be available even on the wildest margins, and that whatever permanence is possible in this impermanent world derives more from that sense of connectedness than from any sense of place. Frank asks: "[Is] there any cause to think a place—any place— within its plaster and joists, its trees and plantings, in its putative essence ever shelters some spirit ghost of us as proof of its significance and ours?" His answer: "No! Not one bit! Only other humans do that …"

The final scene of Independence Day suggests that the best way to deal with life's marginality is to reach out to the other marginal people in the darkness. The novel's closing calls to mind a scene toward the conclusion of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, in which Binx Boiling, when asked what he plans to do with his life, replies: "There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons." In what is perhaps the most moving passage in Ford's fiction, and the author's own testament to the "efficacy of telling" ("The Three Kings"), Frank is awakened from a sound sleep in the middle of the night by a ringing telephone. Most likely it is Paul on the line, but the caller is less important than the fact that Frank responds with healing words and with what he once referred to as "the real stuff," the "silent intimacies … of the fervently understood and sympathized with." The passage clearly shows how far Frank's journey has taken him. And for the Ford reader who may also take consolation from the healing words of a gifted writer at the height of his power, it represents a fitting culmination to everything that the author has written thus far:

And when I said hello from the darkness, there was a moment I took to be dead silence on the line, though gradually I heard a breath, then the sound of a receiver touching what must've been a face. There was a sigh, and the sound of someone going, "Ssss, tsss. Uh-huh, uh-huh," followed by an even deeper and less certain "Ummm."

And I suddenly said, because someone was there I felt I knew, "I'm glad you called." I pressed the receiver to my ear and opened my eyes in the dark. "I just got here," I said. "Now's not a bad time at all. This is a full-time job. Let me hear your thinking. I'll try to add a part to the puzzle. It can be simpler than you think."

Whoever was there—and of course I don't know who, really—breathed again two times, three. Then the breath grew thin and brief. I heard another sound, "Uh-huh." Then our connection was gone, and even before I'd put down the phone I'd returned to the deepest sleep imaginable.

And I am in the crowd just as the drums are passing— always the last in line—their boom-boom-booming in my ears and all around. I see the sun above the street, breathe in the day's rich, warm smell. Someone calls out, "Clear a path, make room, make room, please!" The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others.

In his dream, Frank is no longer alone on the periphery of life. Instead, he is a bystander among bystanders, a castaway among castaways, immersed in the great current of human experience and excited by the infinite possibilities that it offers. The dream is another sign that the Existence Period of his life has ended, and the Permanent Period has begun.

Source: Huey Guagliardo, "Marginal People in Ford's Novels," in Perspectives on Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo, University Press of Mississippi, 2000, pp. 21-32.


Ford, Richard, Independence Day, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Giles, Jeff, "Seems like Old Times," in Newsweek, June 12, 1995, p. 64.

Gray, Paul, "Return of the Sportswriter," in Time, June 19, 1995, p. 60.

Johnson, Charles, "Stuck in the Here and Now," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 100, June 18, 1995, p. 28.

Review of Independence Day, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 17, April 24, 1995, p. 59.

Further Reading

Chernecky, William G., "‘Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be’: Isolation and Alienation in the Frank Bascombe Novels," in Perspectives on Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo, University Press of Mississippi, 2000, pp. 157-76.

Chernecky offers an analysis of The Sportswriter and Independence Day. In the former, Frank Bascombe has a solipsistic worldview that alienates him from the world around him and deprives him of seeing any meaning in life. In the latter, he has mellowed and is less judgmental and solipsistic. He is able to create bridges in order to reach other people.

Hobson, Fred, "Richard Ford and Josephine Humphreys: Walker Percy in New Jersey and Charleston," in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World, University of Georgia Press, 1991, pp. 41-72.

Hobson sees in Ford's narrator, Frank Bascombe, a continuation of the tradition of the cerebral southern narrator found in the novels of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and others. Hobson argues that Bascombe is fascinated by the past, by family, and by place, even though he tries to persuade the reader that he is not.

Lee, Don, "About Richard Ford," in Ploughshares, Vol. 22, No. 2-3, Fall 1996, pp. 226-35.

This article presents an overview of Ford's life and work, up to and including Independence Day.

Walker, Elinor Ann, Richard Ford, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 718, Twayne, 2000, pp. 133-76.

This lengthy analysis of Independence Day includes an examination of how Ford explores the nature of language. Characters use both the power and the imprecision of words to connect or to distance themselves from each other.

Fourth of July

views updated Jun 08 2018


When delegates to the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, they created not only the first modern nation but also the first modern national holiday. The first anniversary of independence was widely celebrated. Naval ships fired symbolic thirteen-gun salutes, and troops paraded and drilled. In Philadelphia, delegates to the Congress dined together while a band of captured Hessians provided music. Bonfires and fireworks lit the evening, and patriots illuminated their windows with candles and punished loyalists by breaking their unlit windows.

The Fourth of July provided a rallying point for revolutionary fervor throughout the war, and the holiday spread rapidly. The Continental Army celebrated by firing salutes, distributing extra rum, and pardoning prisoners. Town observances included bell ringing, thirteen-gun salutes, fireworks, military parades, oratory, dinners, and toasting.

John Adams's Prescription for Celebrating Independence

The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

John Adams wrote this famous prescription for future celebrations of the American Independence Day upon the Continental Congress's adoption of the resolution for independence on 2 July 1776. Americans instead ended up celebrating the Fourth of July, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

Source: John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, in Adams Family Correspondence, ed. L. H. Butterfield, the Adams Papers, series 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1963.

The Early Fourth

Once independence had been won, the purpose of the Fourth changed from renewing revolutionary ardor to constructing American nationalism. By the late eighteenth century, Fourth of July celebrations in towns across the United States contained four components: (1) the oration and the reading of the Declaration of Independence; (2) the military parade and drill; (3) private dinners and toasting; and (4) fireworks and illuminations. The oration was the centerpiece of the celebration and taught Americans the lessons of the Revolution. In America, orators proclaimed, power resided with the people; therefore, Americans must be both virtuous and vigilant to preserve their liberties. Speakers asserted that unity was essential to the nation's continued independence and declaimed on the genius of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in forging that union.

The Battle for the Fourth: 1788 to 1865

The advocates of the Constitution held the dubious honor of being the first to use the symbolic power of the Fourth to legitimize their own cause. Federalists suggested that the Constitution was the fulfillment of the Revolution by holding ratification processions on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia and other cities. The federal processions of 1788 deliberately presented an image of unanimity regarding the Constitution that belied the fierce fights over ratification. In Albany, New York, for example, anti-Federalists countered the Federalist procession with one of their own, which ended with a ritualistic burning of the Constitution and a violent brawl with the Federalists.

Although these fights subsided after ratification, the underlying divisions over the nature of the republic continued to flare up on Independence Day. By the mid-1790s, Federalists and Republicans were holding separate celebrations in Boston, New York, and other cities, with each party proclaiming itself the true heir to the Revolution. After the War of 1812, partisan ferocity declined with the Federalist Party, but politically divisive Fourths reemerged in the 1830s with rising sectionalism.

Other divisions penetrated the Fourth in the antebellum era as well, leading to fragmentation of the holiday. Many Americans did not participate in celebrations at all, either by choice or by exclusion. The public Fourth was preeminently a white male preserve. While men celebrated with oratory, guns, and alcohol, women spent the holiday visiting female friends and relatives. Urban workers often had to work on the Fourth, as did farmers, since the holiday fell during haying season in much of the nation. Urban Fourths became dominated by the carnivalesque celebrations of the working poor, which featured noise, indulgence, mayhem, and spectacle, all fueled by alcohol and gunpowder. Vendors sold food and alcohol, and gangs of rowdy youths drank, shot guns, brawled, and threw firecrackers at the respectable sorts who ventured out on city streets. In response, the urban middle class increasingly withdrew from public celebrations entirely in favor of private picnics.

African Americans were not particularly welcome at public celebrations, and faced harassment and even attack from whites on the Fourth. Some refused to observe the day at all in protest of its hypocrisy, while others organized separate exercises, at which they celebrated the progress already made toward abolition and worked for national emancipation. Black New Yorkers, for instance, annually celebrated their emancipation on the Fifth of July.

In the antebellum era a variety of reformers inaugurated celebrations of the Fourth to promote their own visions of the American nation. Newly formed journeymen's unions sponsored parades and dinners, at which they articulated an artisan republicanism that placed skilled workers at the heart of the nation. Radical workers and reformers rewrote the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth to justify their own struggles for liberation. Church groups, Sunday schools, temperance advocates, and abolitionists all linked their causes to the Revolution. Temperance advocates, for instance, called for freedom from the slavery of the bottle and claimed that the founding fathers had been teetotalers.

Frederick Douglass's 1852 Oration in Rochester, N.Y.

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common . . . . This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

This eloquent expression of African Americans' ambivalence toward the Fourth of July is excerpted from Frederick Douglass's Fourth of July address to the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society in 1852.

Source: Douglass, Frederick. "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Oration, 4 July 1852, Rochester, New York; reprinted in Black Scholar 7 (July-August 1976): 33–34. (Emphasis in original.)

Abolitionists turned the holiday into a pointed attack on America's fall from the promise of 1776. Orators pointed out the incongruity of slavery in the land of liberty. In his famous Fourth of July address before the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society in 1852, Frederick Douglass denounced Independence Day as a cruel joke to African Americans and asserted that they could not celebrate it until they were free. On another Fourth, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison dramatically burned a copy of the Constitution to protest its acceptance of slavery.

As the most radical abolitionists rejected it, white southerners embraced the Constitution on the Fourth to defend their "peculiar institution." After secession, however, they returned to the Declaration of Independence to support their own revolution. Northerners in turn used the wartime Fourths to proclaim the necessity of unity and loyalty to the republic and its Constitution.

Reforming the Fourth

After the Civil War, the antebellum fragmentation returned, broken by occasional displays of unity such as those for the widely celebrated centennial. Philadelphia staged a huge civic procession on the eve of the holiday, and its exercises included the reading of an original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence by Virginian Richard Henry Lee, grandson and namesake of the author of the original resolution for independence. In Boston, a descendant of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, addressed the centennial audience.

The centennial unity proved fleeting, however, and Americans continued to celebrate in groups so that they could shape American nationalism to their own purposes. Immigrants combined ethnic and American nationalism on the Fourth, asserting that the two were not incompatible. Similarly, Native Americans turned the holiday, which the government had imposed as an assimilative force, into a vehicle of cultural survival by performing prohibited dances and rituals. African Americans celebrated their freedom by recounting their contributions to American independence. They were elated when black boxer Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries on 4 July 1910, but glee turned to terror as angry white mobs rampaged against them.

Urban workers, meanwhile, continued to celebrate independence in the pursuit of recreation and amusement, preferring to spend their rare holiday in pleasure rather than listening to oratory. The Fourth found them on steamboat and rail excursions and at minstrel shows, picnics, fireworks displays, circuses, baseball games, regattas, bicycle races, and rodeos.

One constant of the Fourth was fireworks. Americans had long proclaimed their patriotism noisily by expending massive amounts of gunpowder and shooting off firecrackers. In the early twentieth century a coalition of reformers, doctors, journalists, women's clubs, and educators, alarmed at the threat to persons and property, organized the Safe and Sane Fourth of July movement. Newspapers and the American Medical Association publicized the problem by publishing holiday casualty lists, and Sane Fourth Associations sought legislation restricting the sale of guns and fireworks. By 1911, dozens of cities had adopted such legislation. Reformers also created alternative celebrations, including pageants, sporting competitions, folk festivals, and processions, drawing heavily on immigrant cultural traditions. In 1914, Cleveland's Sane Fourth Committee organized a reception for the city's new citizens, and the next year more than a hundred towns celebrated the Fourth as National Americanization Day, with citizenship receptions, patriotic oratory, and pageantry.

In response to the pressure to demonstrate their patriotism during World War I, immigrant leaders, in conjunction with the Committee on Public Information, made the Fourth of July 1918 a massive demonstration of loyalty. A uniform national program of exercises included raising and saluting the flag, reading President Woodrow Wilson's holiday address and the Declaration of Independence, listening to patriotic oratory, welcoming new citizens, and singing "America."

The Contemporary Fourth

Naturalization ceremonies remain a common feature of the contemporary Fourth, with the most symbolic at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. The battle between reformers and noise enthusiasts still reverberates as well, as thousands of Americans cross state lines each June to purchase forbidden fireworks. Modern-day Americans celebrate the Fourth in a variety of ways. Most towns held bicentennial celebrations in 1976, and many still stage annual parades or festivals. Picnics, family reunions, and sporting events are popular holiday pastimes. Because of the significance of its date, the Fourth escaped the holiday exodus to Mondays, but it has become a popular time for summer vacations. At least one factor has remained constant. Fireworks still constitute the most universal and popular aspect of the Fourth, from elaborate municipal displays to the kids with sparklers and firecrackers.

See also: Frolics, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Parades, Patriotism and Leisure


Appelbaum, Diana Karter. The Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, an American History. New York: Facts On File, 1989.

Dennis, Matthew. Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Newman, Simon P. Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Smilor, Raymond W. "Creating a National Festival: The Campaign for a Safe and Sane Fourth, 1903–1916." Journal of American Culture 2 (Winter 1980): 611–622.

Sweet, Leonard I. "The Fourth of July and Black Americans in the Nineteenth Century: Northern Leadership Opinion within the Context of Black Experience." Journal of Negro History 61 (July 1976): 256–275.

Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1997.

Ellen M. Litwicki

Fourth of July

views updated May 23 2018


"The Second Day of July 1776," John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, "will be the most memorable Epocha [fixed moment] in the History of America… it will be celebrated… as the great anniversary Festival." Perhaps only John Adams realized that delegates to the Continental Congress had given birth to the modern national holiday, which came to be celebrated on the fourth, when the Declaration of Independence was approved. The day, he told Abigail, "ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance… It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade."

The Fourth of July provided a rallying point for revolutionary fervor throughout the war. The Continental Army celebrated by firing salutes, distributing extra rum, and pardoning prisoners. Holiday rituals included bell ringing, thirteen-gun salutes, fireworks, military parades, oratory, sermons, dinners, and toasting. A consensus emerged on these rituals and the national symbols of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington, and the flag. Despite this symbolic consensus, conflicts marked celebrations of the Fourth from the start. During the war revolutionary leaders downplayed the fact that a significant number of Americans were Loyalists, while rank-and-file patriots marked and publicly punished Loyalists by breaking their windows on the Fourth.

Conflicts over the meaning of the Fourth and the nation continued after the war. Federalists and anti-Federalists used the Fourth to legitimize their causes during the contest over ratification of the Constitution. Federalists suggested that the Constitution was the fulfillment of the Revolution by holding ratification processions on July 4, 1788. Anti-Federalists countered with

rituals and oratory opposing ratification, going so far as to burn a copy of the Constitution in Albany, New York.

creating national identity: consensus and conflict

By the late eighteenth century, Fourth of July celebrations contained four standard features: (1) the oration and the reading of the Declaration of Independence; (2) a military parade and drill; (3) dinners and toasting; and (4) fireworks and illuminations. The oration was the centerpiece of the celebration and taught the lessons of the Revolution. Speakers proclaimed that Americans were by nature a liberty-loving people, which was why they had risen up against England's tyranny. Because power resided with the people, orators continued, Americans must be both virtuous and vigilant to preserve their liberties. Finally, they asserted that unity was essential to the nation's continued independence and lauded the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as symbols and guarantors of that union.

Despite calls for unity, underlying divisions over the nature of the republic continued to flare up on Independence Day. By the mid-1790s Federalists and Republicans were holding separate celebrations in Boston, New York, and other cities, with each party proclaiming itself the true heir of the Revolution. Republicans rallied for the French Revolution, comparing it to America's own, whereas Federalists condemned its anarchy. Both parties lauded the Constitution as the guarantor of independence, but Republicans read the Declaration of Independence at their exercises, whereas Federalists preferred to keep it and its potentially radical implications well in the past. Each party annually berated the other as an illegitimate faction seeking to undermine the republic. Although both paid tribute to George Washington, Republicans in the 1790s attacked his and Adams's administrations; once the Republicans took over the presidency in 1801, Federalists used the Fourth to assail Thomas Jefferson's administration.

Rather than leading to renewed unity, the War of 1812 intensified these partisan divisions. Republicans used the Fourth to rally support for the war, proclaiming that its causes were the same as those of the Revolution, whereas Federalists condemned the war and James Madison's administration. After the War of 1812, partisan ferocity declined along with the Federalist party, but politically divisive Fourths reemerged in the antebellum era with rising tensions over slavery.

slavery and abolition

African Americans faced harassment from whites on the Fourth. Some refused to observe the day in protest of its hypocrisy, while others organized separate exercises to agitate for emancipation and point out the incongruity of slavery in the land of liberty. Abolitionists turned the Fourth into a pointed attack on America's fall from the promise of 1776. In an 1852 address, the abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass denounced the holiday as a cruel joke to African Americans and asserted that they could not celebrate it until they were free. On another Fourth, the more radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution to protest its acceptance of slavery.

Although abolitionists attacked the Constitution on the Fourth, white Southerners embraced its protection of slavery. During the Civil War, however, Southerners returned to the Declaration of Independence to support secession, which they heralded as the completion of the Revolution. Northerners, in contrast, used wartime Fourth of July celebrations to proclaim unity and loyalty to the republic and its Constitution. During Reconstruction white Southerners refused to commemorate the Fourth, whereas African Americans celebrated it and their newly won independence vigorously.


Since the Civil War, the Fourth of July has continued to serve as a periodic rallying cry for Americans at war. During the war against Filipino insurgents at the turn of the century, pro- and anti-imperialists promoted their respective causes in holiday oratory. In 1915 more than a hundred towns celebrated the Fourth as National Americanization Day. In response to pressure to demonstrate their patriotism during World War I, immigrant leaders worked with the Committee on Public Information to make the 1918 Fourth of July a showcase of loyalty. In World War II as well, the Fourth was an occasion to demonstrate patriotism. Congress even created a new citizenship holiday, dubbed "I Am an American Day." During the Cold War (1946–1991), Fourth of July orators often propounded on American freedom and denounced communism. During the Vietnam War (1965–1973), pro- and antiwar forces agitated.

Today naturalization ceremonies remain a feature of the Fourth, with the most symbolic at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Fourth again became a rallying point, this time for the war on terrorism. Although picnics, family reunions, fireworks displays, and sporting events are popular ways to celebrate the contemporary Fourth, the holiday clearly retains the potential to revive revolutionary passions and renew patriotic values.


Appelbaum, Diana Karter. The Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, an American History. New York: Facts on File, 1989.

Dennis, Matthew. Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Litwicki, Ellen M. America's Public Holidays, 1865–1920. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Newman, Simon P. Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

O'Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Sweet, Leonard I. "The Fourth of July and Black Americans in the Nineteenth Century: Northern Leadership Opinion within the Context of Black Experience." Journal of Negro History 61 (July 1976): 256–275.

Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1997.

Ellen M. Litwicki

See also:Bunker Hill Monument; Lafayette's Tour; Valley Forge.

Independence Day

views updated Jun 08 2018

Independence Day

Directed by Roland Emmerich, Independence Day was an epic film about an apocalyptic invasion of the Earth by extraterrestrials. The film opened in July of 1996 to enormous box-office profits. It benefitted from a canny advertising campaign featuring as its centerpiece a shot of the destruction of the White House and set a record by collecting $100 million in six days. Independence Day went on to earn $306 million, putting it among the top ten highest grossing films ever. Most critics were less kind to the film, pointing to its stereotypical ethnic characters, an implausible deus ex machina ending, and a rather nationalistic subtext disingenuously cloaked behind its multicultural pretensions. Others pointed to the extremely derivative nature of the film, including not-so-subtle science fiction borrowings from The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Alien, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, V, and The X Files. Nevertheless, audiences flocked to Independence Day, making it the cinematic success story of 1996.

Set in the month of July during a year in the early twenty-first century, the film opens ominously, with a shot of a gigantic shadow, accompanied by rumbles and tremors, passing over the site of mankind's first lunar landing. Scientific and military organizations alike quickly detect that an immense object one-fourth the size of the moon, apparently under intelligent control, is taking up a position in near-Earth orbit. The object, which turns out to be a mother ship, releases 15 smaller, but still miles across, disc-shaped craft that enter the Earth's atmosphere in clouds of fire to hover silently over major world cities. The film then introduces its major characters, all of whom will transcend personal failure to become heroes in the upcoming battle: the politically embattled U.S. President and veteran Gulf War pilot, Thomas Whitmore; Steven Hiller, an F-16 pilot and failed NASA applicant; Jasmine Dubrow, Hiller's exotic-dancer girlfriend; David Levinson, a New York cable-television scientist who has failed at his marriage and his career; Constance Spano, Levinson's ex-wife and aide to President Whitmore; and Russell Casse, an alcoholic cropduster and Vietnam War veteran pilot. As a panicked civilization becomes increasingly destabilized, Levinson discovers that the discs are using Earth's satellites to synchronize a countdown to a simultaneous worldwide attack. Accompanied by his father, Levinson convinces Constance to tell the president about the imminent attack. Though the news comes too late for any effective evacuation, the president, some of his staff, and the Levinsons are able to escape Washington just as the discs, acting in concert, fire their primary weapons to create firestorms that engulf and utterly destroy the world's major cities, including New York and Los Angeles.

The second part of the film focuses on mankind's counterattack against the alien invaders. The president, who has lost his wife in the invasion, personally commands the national, and eventually worldwide, effort. Hiller not only survives a massive but futile F-16 attack on one of the discs and its hordes of fighters, but also manages to shoot down and capture alive one of the aliens. During the counteroffensive, Whitmore learns to his anger that a covert branch of the government, kept secret even from the president, has been studying an alien fighter, captured in the late 1950s, at the infamous Area 51 in the Nevada desert. Through close inspection of the captured ship, Levinson finds that he will be able to introduce a disabling computer virus into the alien computer network, provided someone can dock the smaller fighter with the mother ship. Hiller volunteers to fly the alien fighter. Meanwhile, the president and Russell Casse, among other volunteers, suit up to fly a coordinated F-16 attack against all of the discs the second the virus paralyzes the alien craft and lowers their shields. Whitmore delivers an inspirational speech to the amassed volunteers shortly before the attack. Even with the virus successfully introduced and the shields down, however, the discs prove too hardy for missiles until Casse's suicide plunge into a disc's primary weapon shows the other pilots how to bring the discs down. Hiller and Levinson, barely escaping the destruction of the mother ship, fly back to Earth to find that the smaller discs have all been destroyed as well. The victory, which takes place on July 4, ensures that Independence Day will no longer be only an American holiday.

German-born Roland Emmerich and American Dean Devlin, the creative duo behind Independence Day, first teamed up in the United States for 1992's Universal Soldier, which starred Jean Claude Van Damme. Emmerich and Devlin achieved name-recognition status and modest commercial success with 1994's Stargate, a film about aliens, time travel, the modern military, and ancient Egypt. For Stargate, Emmerich directed, co-wrote, and co-produced and Devlin co-wrote and co-produced, as would be the case with their next project. According to its creators, Independence Day was conceived to be an homage to war and adventure movies, specifically the 1970s epic-scale and multi-character disaster movies. The chairman of Twentieth Century-Fox, Peter Chernin, agreed to back Emmerich and Devlin's project. Solid, recognizable actors such as Will Smith (Steve Hiller), Bill Pullman (President Whitmore), Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Randy Quaid (Russell Casse), Mary McDonnell (the First Lady), Judd Hirsch (doting Jewish father Julius Levinson), Harvey Fierstein (David's boss Marty Gilbert), and Brent Spiner (in a brief but unforgettable cameo as the outlandish Dr. Brakkish Okun, scientific leader at the Area 51 research facility) were cast. Location shooting began in 1995. Manhattan provided an urban background for crowd reaction shots to the awe-inspiring arrival of the interstellar visitors. The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah served as a panoramic backdrop for the scene where Hiller leads an enormous caravan of refugees to the Area 51 facility. The hangars of the old Hughes aircraft facility in Los Angeles housed the special effects facilities involving the film's extensive pyrotechnic and miniatures (aircraft, cities, alien ships) work. In postproduction, dozens of computer-generated images were combined with existing special effects shots to create an intricately layered, visually spectacular depiction of the alien invasion. (The special effects won the 1996 Academy Award in that category.) The film ultimately cost $71 million, which was not an extravagant amount by 1990s cinematic budgetary standards. The resultant financial success of Independence Day placed enormous pressure on Emmerich and Devlin to produce a film of similar spectacle and profitability as a follow-up. However, their 1998 film Godzilla, while profitable, was considered to be one of 1998's big-budget flops. Also released in 1998, the laser disc edition of Independence Day is eight minutes longer than the already lengthy theatrical release, primarily because of additional dialogue between the principal characters and one scene involving Dr. Okun's inspection of the interior of the alien fighter.

—Philip L. Simpson

Further Reading:

Aberly, Rachel, and Volker Engel. The Making of Independence Day. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

Rogin, Michael. Independence Day. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998.

Fourth of July

views updated May 23 2018


The Fourth of July, the first American holiday, began as a way of celebrating Congress's vote for independence. The vote occurred on 2 July 1776, but the announcement of the action was spread on 4 July 1776. Americans mistakenly believed that the date on the newspapers and broadsides was the date of independence.

Fourth of July festivities followed an age-old pattern of celebratory rites. Since bells were rung and cannons fired to acknowledge a royal birth, the same signals were used to mark the nation's birthday at dawn. A military muster was often the first event of the day, providing much pomp and pageantry. The soldiers would then retire to drink and eat the traditional Fourth of July dishes of turtle soup and ice cream. Most Americans gathered late in the day, especially at night. Men and women attended plays, concerts, hot-air balloon demonstrations, horse

races, and fireworks exhibitions. Huge paintings depicted General George Washington and American military victories. Rowdies would occasionally set bonfires, but most activities were subdued. Rural areas did not participate.

The Fourth of July was not a benign celebration. During the Revolution, Independence Day observances inspired patriotic Americans to keep fighting and served to force out opponents of independence. British sympathizers were easily identified by their refusal to participate in toasts, parades, and other activities and were stigmatized as a result. Loyalists would typically keep their houses free of lights, and rock-throwing patriots often broke the darkened windows. In these years, when the war proceeded badly for the patriots, celebrations were muted or abandoned entirely, as was the case in 1780 and 1781.

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the Fourth of July became a commemorative event. Communication and entertainment were viewed as more important than any practical result. Community after community made the day into an official holiday with barbeques, parades, and readings of the Declaration of Independence.

In the late 1780s control of Independence Day became hotly contested between political groups that attempted to direct the activities in a way which allowed them to promote their agendas. During the Adams presidency in the late 1790s, Republicans used the day to indicate their support for France and their distaste for the president. On festive occasions, American men in this era would commonly place a black rosette cockade in their hats. In response to Adams's unpopular French-aimed Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Republicans along the Eastern seaboard replaced the American cockade with a blue one symbolic of France. A few Federalists then physically removed the blue cockades. In the 1790s the Fourth of July became notorious for riotous behavior, and many Americans dreaded the coming of the day.

By about 1814, the Fourth of July had become a generally accepted day off from work because of politics. Prior to this time, Americans had a relatively uninterrupted work schedule with only the Sunday Sabbath as a rest day. Deprived workers were eager for a day of celebration. With both Federalists and Republicans seeing political advantages in promoting a vacation, the day became a holiday.

After the War of 1812 it was a holiday only for whites, however. African Americans were pushed out of Fourth of July celebrations by a mixture of intimidation and physical violence. Slaves typically did not possess the right to congregate freely, to be unescorted at night, or to throw fireworks. Whites saw Independence Day as a holiday for Americans only and blacks did not qualify for citizenship.

During the War of 1812, Independence Day celebrations in southern cities served to boost enthusiasm for the war effort. In Boston, a city controlled by the Federalist opponents of the war, celebrations stopped. By halting the festivities, the Federalists hoped to awaken people to the dangers of losing to foreign invaders and to Republican mismanagement of the country. As the Federalist Party collapsed in the wake of the British defeat, partisanship in Fourth of July celebrations rapidly disappeared. Parades, speeches, and fireworks continued, but the focus was now entirely on nationalism.

The end of the war brought the end of celebrating Revolutionary goals. Images of prosperity replaced images of liberty. Lengthy orations focused on love of the land as well as America's beauty, abundance, and potential for material progress. In the 1820s women joined the festivities for the first time as active participants. Dressed in calico, they marched in front of flag-draped wagons filled with the goods of local merchants. The only discordant note came when female temperance advocates began staging Independence Day rallies against the heavy drinking that had become a part of the occasion in urban areas. By 1830, the Fourth of July had emerged as a nonpartisan national holiday to celebrate America.

See alsoFlags; Music: Patriotic and Political; National Symbols; "Star-Spangled Banner."


Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Detweiler, Philip F. "The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 19 (1962): 557–574.

Newman, Simon P. Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

O'Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Pencak, William, Matthew Dennis, and Simon P. Newman, eds. Riot and Revelry in Early America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Caryn E. Neumann

Independence Day

views updated May 23 2018


INDEPENDENCE DAY. The adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 has caused that day to be taken as the birth date of the United States of America. Strangely, the commemoration of the Fourth of July received its first big impetus and had the pattern set for its celebration before the event even came to pass. On 3 July, John Adams wrote to his wife:

The second day of July, 1776,…Iamaptto believe … will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

Adams was thinking of the resolution of independence adopted on 2 July as the pivotal event, but the Declaration of Independence soon completely obscured the resolution.

The first anniversary does not appear to have been commemorated throughout the thirteen states, but there were elaborate celebrations in the principal cities, and parades, the firing of guns, the ringing of bells, decorations, illuminations, fireworks, and the drinking of toasts constituted the chief features in every instance. The practice of commemorating the Glorious Fourth soon spread widely, particularly after the adoption of the Constitution. As the years went by, some of the early features of the celebration declined or disappeared entirely, such as the thirteen guns and thirteen (or thirteen times thirteen) toasts. Meanwhile, sports and games, which at first were only a minor part of the festivities, became the greatest attraction. In country regions, the Fourth of July became a day for picnics, with exhibitions of skill in such contests as potato races, watermelon eating, and catching the greased pig, without much thought of the Declaration of Independence. Since 1777, fireworks, great and small, have held a prominent place. In the early 1900s, serious efforts were made to promote safety in Fourth of July celebrations, and in ensuing years the personal possession of fireworks has been outlawed in many states.


Bodnar, John, ed. Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Edmund C.Burnett/a. g.

Independence Day

views updated May 29 2018

In·de·pend·ence Day • n. another term for Fourth of July. ∎  a day celebrating the anniversary of national independence.

Fourth of July

views updated May 18 2018


FOURTH OF JULY. SeeIndependence Day .

Fourth of July

views updated Jun 11 2018

Fourth of July US national holiday. It celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, and has been a national holiday since then.

Independence Day

views updated May 23 2018

Independence Day See Fourth of July

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