The year of 1961 was bookended by two iconic and enduring moments for American letters: John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, on January 20th, and the November publication of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In an essay for A New Literary History of America, which you can read in full below, Charles Taylor pits these visions of America’s place in the world against one another, contrasting Kennedy’s call to service with Heller’s take on the risks of obedience. The Presidential Inaugural Address is a unique genre, and with Barack Obama’s second but a few days away, now seems an apt time to look back.
In Joe Dante’s 1993 comedy Matinee, it’s 1962, and we’re in a picture-perfect American living room. A little boy in a cowboy hat kills time before Sunday dinner watching Art Linkletter’s quiz show People Are Funny when a bulletin interrupts saying President Kennedy will speak live from the White House on a matter of “the greatest national urgency.” The president informs his audience that Soviet missiles are being installed in Cuba, some containing nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States. He has the look of a man delivering a death sentence. “They’re gonna bomb us?” asks the little boy. “No,” says his older brother, trying to comfort him, though he plainly doesn’t believe it himself. They’ve spent the afternoon at a shlocky Vincent Price matinee, where the older boy has delighted in his little brother’s fright. There’s no delight now. And then, as if on cue, comes the real chiller moment. Kennedy’s face fills the screen. “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war,” he says, “but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”
Nothing diminishes the terror of that moment: what Norman Mailer, writing a few months later, called “a bright mad psychic voice which leaps to give the order that presses a button.” The grim determined stature of a man carrying out the worst burden of his office crumbles when you parse those words. Harking forward six years to the U.S. Army major who justified the destruction of the Vietnamese village Ben Tre, Kennedy is saying that if necessary he’ll destroy the republic in order to save it.
Kennedy’s presidency has always been celebrated for its spirit of hope and youthful vigor and renewed commitment to public service. But Kennedy’s words on that Sunday evening in October (or, to be precise, the words of Theodore Sorensen, who wrote many of his speeches as well as Profiles in Courage, for which Kennedy received the Pulitzer Prize) are the fulfillment of what he so famously promised twenty-two months earlier, on January 20, 1961, in his Inaugural Address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
In that speech, Kennedy reminded his audience that his generation of Americans had been “tempered by war.” Published at the end of that year, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 suggested how. “Now the trumpet summons us again,” Kennedy said, in language more apocalyptic than stirring, “to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle . . . a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” “Will you join in that historic effort?” Kennedy asked. And twelve months later, Heller’s hero Yossarian answered: Fuck no.
The novel’s title refers to its most logical piece of nonlogic: crazy men cannot be sent on flying missions. But because only a crazy man would go on such a dangerous mission, the fact that he doesn’t want to is a sign of his sanity, and therefore, he’s clear to fly.