Off the Shelf Redux: Wendell Berry’s ‘November 26, 1963’

Shahn illust manAfter last week’s look at the Ben Shahn/Wendell Berry book collaboration November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three I gained some additional information from Wendell Berry.

While there is not much insight he can add, Berry writes, there are interesting tidbits about the project. He notes that his friend Denise Levertov was poetry editor at The Nation at the time. And as Shahn implies in his introduction to the volume, the project idea was the artist’s rather than Berry’s. Poet and artist never met.

Berry writes, “Most important to me is that when Ben Shahn inscribed my poem, he did not reproduce my lines as I wrote them. It seems he is not referring to a change in the text itself, but rather the calligraphic liberties Shahn took in adding multiple line breaks when Berry wrote the poem in relatively long lines of verse. Such a change can cause a difference in how one reads, and even understands, the poem. But Shahn’s was envisioning the project as a graphic whole. While Shahn did not change the words or their order, he clearly did view them as malleable, a medium with which he was free to work.

Berry Nov 26 text 3

Berry points the reader to the original printing in The Nation “to see the poem as written.” On this November 26, fifty years after the original date of the poem, yes, enjoy the moving Ben Shahn interpretation, but don’t forget The Nation’s faithful rendering as Wendell Berry wrote it.

Off the Shelf: ‘November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three’ by Wendell Berry & Ben Shahn

Berry Nov 26 text 1

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 Nov 26 text 2

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.

Shahn Nov 26 illust horse

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.

Berry Nov 26 cover

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.

Berry Shahn signatures

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.

Shahn Nov 26 illust color


See also: Off the Shelf Redux: Wendell Berry’s ‘November 26, 1963′