I've had a soft spot in my heart for Eve Merriam's poem "The Coward" ever since I watched, when I was ten or eleven, the 1949 film Home of the Brave on the old Million Dollar Movie on TV (where they played the same movie back to back to back, and the theme from Gone with the Wind played before and after). The movie, which was directed by Mark Robson, dealt with racism in the army, centering on a platoon entrusted with a dangerous mission on an island in the Pacific that the Japanese tenaciously held.
Home of the Brave was based on a play of the same title by Arthur Laurents (1945), only there it was a Jewish GI subjected to anti-Semitic abuse. The substitution of a black man (played stirringly by James Edwards) was a shrewd stroke for more reasons than one even if it is entirely artificial. It could not have happened thus for the simple reason that the US Army was not integrated until Harry Truman made it happen in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and three years after World War II was in the books. Benny Goodman integrated his band a decade sooner than the United States military.
One thing in particular that interests me is the idea that an African-American man may be understood as an allegorical representation of a Jewish-American man -- especially in plays, movies, and musicals of the 1920s and '30s written by Jewish authors and composers. Consider, for example, “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein) or all of the Gershwin’s’ Porgy and Bess. While the Jewish authorship of songs sung definitively though not exclusively by African American singers intimates an affinity between the two groups, it also implies a certain amount of more or less creative tension, and the more complicated feelings that inevitably attend such a relation. But back to the matter at hand.
In Home of the Brave two great friends and former basketball teammates, one black, one white, serve together until Finch, the white man, in a moment of panic, angrily calls Moss a “nitwit,” pausing long enough between the “ni” and the “twit” to leave the impression that he was going to reveal, in the one word, the real racism beyond the appearance of friendship. When Finch dies, Moss is -- and the cliche is justified here -- paralyzed not with fear but with guilt, and I won’t give the rest away. Carl Foreman and Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay for Home of the Brave; Dmitri Tiomkin composed the music, Stanley Kramer produced. The cast included Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, Steve Brodie, Jeff Corey, and James Edwards, Steve Brodie is very good as the redneck racist, Corporal Evans.
See it. In black-and-white.
As for Eve Merriam's poem, Lovejoy, playing a tough-as-nails sergeant, quotes the last six lines of "The Coward," saying that his wife wrote them. The lines are meant to embolden the listener by extending a hand. But the lines do more than that; they give the moment a majesty that it would not otherwise have. This is in part because they sound like poetry – the lines scan and rhyme. But if you analyze the final couplet you see how much more ambitious and complicated is the message conveyed.
It was very many years later that I discovered that the lines Sergeant Mingo quotes came from this poem in Eve Merriam's first book, Family Circle(1946), which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize.
You, weeping wide at war, weep with me now.
Cheating a little at peace, come near
And let us cheat together here.
Look at my guilt, mirror of my shame.
Deserter, I will not turn you in;
I am your trembling twin!
Afraid, our double knees lock in knocking fear;
Running from the guns we stumble upon each other.
Hide in my lap of terror: I am your mother.
-- Only we two, and yet our howling can
Encircle the world's end.
Frightened, you are my only friend.
And frightened, we are everyone.
Someone must make a stand.
Coward, take my coward's hand.
-- Eve Merriam (1916-1992)
The poem a deserves a wider audience – as does the movie after all these years. -- DL