A Tale of Two Americas

In John Philip Falter’s “Sunday Gardening” painting, originally published on the July 1, 1961 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, the contrast is blatant to say the least. We see the tidy neighbor, Mr. Jones, tending to his neatly trimmed hedges against the backdrop of a well-manicured lawn and freshly painted home. His neighbor, however, a man named Red, is far less concerned with outward appearances. His lawn, flowers, and home are all victims of neglect. It’s a visual manifestation of the seemingly innocuous problems of postwar America — keeping up with the Joneses, keeping up appearances, etc. But just like so many Saturday Evening Post covers, a certain sense of social and cultural ignorance is also on display.

What we see in the painting is two men with different approaches to home maintenance, we are told, not two men who inhabit entirely different tax brackets (the true undercurrent here). It’s a quaint sentiment that’s echoed by the explanation of the painting on the inside cover of this issue:

John Falter’s cover shows us that twin homes, like twin humans, usually dress differently as they get on in the years. At the residence on our right we find a reclining retriever at the foots of the steps and an irretrievable recliner at the top of the steps, in an office chair. We deduce that both Red and his neighbor, Mr. Jones, seek relaxation in activities which provide a change of pace from their workaday pursuits. Red is a handyman who likes to assume the posture of an executive, and Mr. Jones is an executive who enjoys playing handyman. Red has no desire to keep up with the Joneses, for he has observed a danger of overgrooming: Red’s head of hair is a jungle, but it flourishes; whereas Mr. Jones’s hair seems to have been combed and plastered to within a couple inches of its life.

It’s this specific point, the notion that homes “dress differently as they get on in the years,” that stands out. Look beyond Mr. Jones’s meticulous nature and Red’s laidback demeanor and its impossible to ignore the class issues at play. For example, is the state of Red’s home an exception in an otherwise well-maintained neighborhood? Or does his situation represent the future of this street and its surrounding areas? Was it once an affluent neighborhood that just recently became more affordable for the working class? Or are the homes now more affordable because affluent whites are fleeing to the suburbs since crime rates and poverty are on the rise? And in a final jab at Red, the reading material splayed across his chest as he sleeps is the comics section of the Sunday newspaper — a nod to his low-brow interests, and potential lack of intelligence.

The themes of tidy versus sloppy may have been the message the editors at the Post wanted readers to hear, but what readers saw was an entirely different narrative. It’s not surprising given the conservative stance of the Post. (After all, there’s a reason Norman Rockwell went on to do some of his most provocative work for Look magazine, not the Post.) With white flight in full swing at that moment in American history, and with the Watts Riots still a few years off, this may have been a moment of calm before the storm. But maybe Falter was trying to tell a dual narrative: the story the Post paid him to tell, and the underlying story that he wanted to tell.

Originally published by Medium in August of 2013. Painting by John Philip Falter.

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