So much symbolism is bound up in John F. Kennedy it is difficult to separate the myth from the reality. For those my age, and even a decade older, JFK is someone we know only from photographs and old video clips. It is that last video clip from Dallas that transformed the man into the legend.
Wendell Berry, a novelist and poet still in his twenties at the time, was understandably moved. In response to Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, and his state funeral on November 25, Berry wrote his reflections in verse as “November 26, 1963,” a consideration the day after.
Berry published the poem in The Nation magazine (December 21) where it was read by artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Lithuanian born, Shahn’s father had been exiled to Siberia by the czars as a political dissident. Eventually the family emigrated from their homeland to the United States.
Shahn embraced leftist ideology in his politics and social realism in his art. Among Shahn’s famous subjects were Sacco and Vanzetti and, later, Martin Luther King, Jr. for TIME magazine. He was also well-known as a Depression-era photographer for the Farm Security Administration.
Kennedy’s assassination was, then, a perfect subject for Shahn, and Berry’s poem was the perfect vehicle. Shahn writes,
It was shortly after those shattering few days that the following poem appeared in The Nation. I found it extraordinarily moving. It was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail. Its images were the images of those days, no others. In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared.
When I read the poem, I wanted it preserved, read, not lost in the pages of a last week’s magazine. I turned it into a book, accompanied by the images that it invokes for me. I have hoped, in some small way, to help monumentalize those days so that we may not so soon become inured to an unacceptable violence, a failure, a profound sadness.
What resulted was a lovely oblong slipcased volume published by George Braziller in May 1964, only Berry’s second book. Shahn frequently used a block style calligraphic text with his artwork, and he employs the technique with great effect here. His hand drawn title fills the front cover, and the text of the poem is rendered in the same style throughout faced with Shahn’s illustrations on the left.
There are two editions, a limited signed edition and a regular trade edition. According to Russell Freedman’s Wendell Berry bibliography, 3013 copies of the limited signed edition were issued, printed on hand laid paper from the Italian mill Fabriano. Somewhat mysteriously, online bookseller Daedalus found a cache of new, uncirculated copies a few years ago, and sold them for a reasonable sum (I’m sure all are long gone now). The trade edition, also slipcased but slightly smaller in size, is fairly easily found for not too much money. The black slipcase is often faded, and the cloth cover is often foxed.
As the nation remembers its most recent fallen president, take a moment to read Berry’s thoughtful poem. It well captures the mood of our nation fifty years ago.