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A Commentary on Carlos Bulosan’s Essay,
“Freedom From Want"

Given his financial situation and the hardships he encountered as a brown skinned immigrant worker in White America, it is evident that Bulosan never reached the goal during his lifetime.

In his annual State of the Nation address to Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated: “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.”1 He was referring to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Norman Rockwell, a famous American painter during this time period, portrayed each of these four ideals on canvas.2 Rockwell’s work is referred to as the Four Freedoms Collection: (http://www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/previous_results.asp?Exhib_ID=98#)
Each “freedom” was featured in the Saturday Evening Post, a nationwide weekly, and was accompanied by a commissioned essay on each freedom.3

The editors of the Saturday Evening Post explain that Carlos Bulosan was asked to write on Freedom from Want “because a man struggling to reach a goal often sees the goal more clearly than one who has already reached it.”4 Given his financial situation and the hardships he encountered as a brown skinned immigrant worker in White America, it is evident that Bulosan never reached the goal during his lifetime. As a result, striving to be free from want was an indelible and lasting part of his life and was a strong motivating factor in his writing.

While Bulosan’s experiences as a migrant worker made him an ideal author for the Freedom from Want essay, he would not have even been considered if he had not been a regular contributor in other prominent publications. The essay was not his only work that was published. By 1943, Bulosan’s manuscript, “The Laughter of My Father” was in the hands of publisher, Harcourt Brace & Co. and would be released the following year. Additionally, his works appeared in leading magazines of his day, such as The New Yorker Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Westways, Town and Country, and Arizona Quarterly http://www.oovrag.com/bibliography/bibliography6.shtml
consisting of short stories, essays, and poems. His ability to be published in a variety of publications is proof of his popularity, and ultimately a testament to his prolific talent. Others commissioned to write on the remaining “freedoms” were: Booth Tarkington (Freedom of Speech), Will Durant (Freedom to Worship), and Stephen Vincent Benet (Freedom from Fear). The latter three are each Pulitzer Prize winning authors, and are recognized as popular American authors of the 20th century. The fact that Bulosan was granted a commission among such accomplished authors is a reflection of his literary success during this time period. The accomplishment is even more noteworthy when considering that Bulosan had only an elementary level of education.

The Freedom from Want essay, however, almost did not make the print deadline. The Post editors noted that his submission somehow “disappeared …mysteriously.”5 When informed by the editor, Bulosan, not having made an extra copy, immediately rushed to the bar in Tacoma where he left the draft, only to find that beer had been spilled on it and someone had used it to light a cigar.6

In his Congressional speech, the president defined freedom from want as the “economic understanding which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world,”7 Rockwell chose to illustrate this healthy peacetime by portraying a family gathering for a Thanksgiving meal. The basic human needs of all the individuals in this scene are shown to be fulfilled. There is an absence of hunger, thirst, and loneliness. Bulosan’s “Freedom From Want” essay emphasizes the importance of having these needs met. The following passage most clearly articulates Bulosan’s perception of freedom from want:

But we are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied to us, so long will it want to manifest itself in a world of slaves. It is only when we have plenty to eat/plenty of everything that we begin to understand what freedom means…When we have enough to eat, then we are healthy enough to enjoy what we eat…Then we are not merely living but also becoming a creative part of life. It is only then that we become a growing part of democracy.8

In Consorcio’s case, he experienced a more abstract type of hunger: the need to take on the appearance of an American.

Bulosan’s essay articulates that true freedom is not possible without the alleviation of want.  This particular theme is not only stated in the Post essay; it is a recurring one in several of his other writings. For Bulosan, freedom from want is the difference between living to survive and living with purpose. There are several other works by Bulosan that reveal his commitment to this ideal.

One such work is Bulosan’s short story titled “Be American.9 The story follows the experiences of Consorcio, a Filipino immigrant who has ambitions to become an American quickly, “Cousin, I want to be American…I want to be American right away.”10 He sets the goal of becoming a citizen in one year, even though the process of citizenship at this time took at least five years.  He even allows himself to believe that he can change the law to allow him to become a citizen sooner. Consorcio’s commitment to this goal is shown by his willingness to sacrifice to realize this achievement. For example, he spent all of his wages from his bakery job to buy books and learn English, with the hope that these would further bring him closer to becoming American. However, as time went on, the financial reality of his situation began to sink in more, and Consorcio ended up having to sell his collection of books and abandoning his goal of becoming “Americanized”. In doing so, Bulosan claims that “[Consorcio] realized that he could not ask for too much in a strange land, and it was this realization that liberated him from a peasant prison… and eventually led him to a kind of work to which he devoted his time and life to until the end.”11 Consorcio then devoted his life to an agricultural newspaper, a job which he carried until the end of his life.

The story of Consorcio echoes the message of “Freedom from Want.” In Consorcio’s case, he experienced a more abstract type of hunger: the need to take on the appearance of an American. For example, when Consorcio showed the books he purchased to his cousin, the cousin replied, “Well, I hope these big books will make you an American faster.” Consorcio said “Sure cousin.”12 For as long as Consorcio had this attitude, he was bound by his labor, and was unable to experience a fulfilling life.

I found a new Consorcio. He had aged and the peasant naivete was gone from his face. His eyes were now a hidden fear. His hands danced and flew when he was talking, and even while he was not talking, as though he were slapping the wind with both hands or clapping with one hand.13

According to Bulosan, when Consorcio gave up trying to appear American, he then truly became an American. He experienced what it really meant to be free by working at a job he loved with the agricultural workers newspaper.

Bulosan’s belief in the freedom from want can also be found in Bulosan’s short story, The Romance of Magno Rubio.14 The story takes place in a bunkhouse where Filipino seasonal farm workers live. The protagonist Magno Rubio devotes all of his time, money, and attention to a woman whom he’s never met before. The woman is described as being from Arkansas, “standing at six feet tall and weighing 195 lbs.”15 Magno Rubio develops a relationship with the American woman Clarabelle through letters. She shamelessly asks him to send money and gifts, which he does. A fellow worker later reveals that he too was in love with this Clarabelle and had been corresponding with her the whole time. Clarabelle spurns Magno Rubio’s proposal after bilking him of his hard-earned dollars.

He ends up where he started, rejected, and unaware of the true experience of freedom. In contrast, the other immigrant worker frees himself from this slavery. He denounces Clarabelle and leaves to pursue a better life.

Magno expends his love, attention, and wages out of desire for this woman, thus illustrating the point made by Bulosan in his Freedom from Want essay, about a false sense of freedom, “so long as the fruit of our labor is denied to us, so long will it want to manifest itself in a world of slaves.”16 By making such a sacrifice for this woman, he loses all that he has worked for, and therefore becomes enslaved by his desire for Clarabelle. This slavery is shown by Magno Rubio’s reaction to Clarabelle’s rejection. After a long silence, he returns to doing work in the fields, thus showing that all of his unfulfilled desire for Clarabelle has gotten him nowhere. He ends up where he started, rejected, and unaware of the true experience of freedom. In contrast, the other immigrant worker frees himself from this slavery. He denounces Clarabelle and leaves to pursue a better life. In doing so, he is freeing himself from want, and opening himself to a life of fulfillment.

This repeated theme is also evident in much of Bulosan’s poetry. One such poem is titled “Hymn to a Man Who Failed.”17 The tone of the poem is one of helplessness and futility. The person for whom this poem is written is at the opposite end of “freedom from want,” presumably a Filipino laborer who feels that he failed to attain the American dream:

This is your world. This tin-can shack on the dry
River bed, this undismayed humanity drinking
Black coffee and eating stale bread, this water
Blue under the dark shadows of the proud city.

Evening and returning home, finding no peace,
No embrace of devotion my beaten friend…18

The diction of this passage implies that Bulosan is intentionally conveying entrapment and isolation when humans are deprived. Words such as dry, stale, and dark all give the sense of deprivation present when want is not eliminated.
 In the next stanza, Bulosan provides a sense of the freedom that one attains when this deprivation is alleviated,

Lie down and laugh your worries away,
Or sit awhile and dream of impossible regions,
While there is no hunger, no endless waiting,
No cry for blood, no deceptions, no lies.19

The shift in tone and peaceful imagery is used to portray a world where freedom from want is a reality.

Another Bulosan poem that sings of this freedom is titled “I Want the Wide American Earth.”20 The poem speaks of an idealized America as an attainable goal, and has a tone of hopefulness amidst the struggles encountered by Filipino laborers.  “Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers/ I say I want the wide American earth…Free men everywhere in my land/This wide American earth—do not wander homeless/ And are not alone.”21 Here, Bulosan paints a picture of the type of world that people dream of: one of true freedom. The following passage correlates the idealized American society with the freedom from want: “Friendship is our bread, love our air/ And we call each other comrade, each growing with the other/ Each a neighbor to the other, boundless in freedom,”22 In this ideal society, there is a presence of the “healthy peacetime life” stated by Roosevelt. The passage “friendship is our bread, love our air,” implies that both the physical and emotional needs of people are satisfied in the ideal society. Here, the importance of the freedom from want becomes clear. It is only when the most fundamental human needs are met that people will be enabled to experience freedom without limit.

The essay “Freedom from Want” by Carlos Bulosan was not an isolated message. Elements of his sentiment are present in his short stories as well as his poetry. The stories Be American and The Romance of Magno Rubio show that it is impossible to live a truly independent life without this freedom. Similarly, the poems “Hymn to a man who failed” and “I want the wide American earth,” show that the type of freedom dreamt about by so many people cannot be reached if the freedom from want is not guaranteed.

Endnotes:

1 Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The Four Freedoms.” http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/od4frees.html. (accessed 11/19/08)

2 Corcoran Gallery of Art, “Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Paintings that Inspired a Nation.” http://www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/previous_results.asp?Exhib_ID=98# (accessed 12/25/08)

3The Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia: The Curtis Publishing Co., 1943).

4 The Saturday Evening Post, “Keeping Posted,” March 1, 1943, 4. 

5 Id.

6 Id.

7 Id.,State of the Union, http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/od4frees.html. (accessed 11/19/08)

8 Bulosan, Carlos. “Freedom From Want.” Saturday Evening Post. March 6, 1943, 12.

9 Bulosan, Carlos. “Be American” in On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan, edited byE. San Juan, Jr. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press: 1995), 66-78.

10 Id.

11 Id. at 71.

12 Id. at 67.

13 Id. at 70.

14 Bulosan, Carlos. “The Romance of Magno Rubio,” Amerasia Journal, "Special Issue: Writings of Carlos Bulosan." Russell C. Leung, editor, with an Introduction by E. San Juan, Jr., May 1979, 6:35

15 Rubio, id. at 37.

16 Id.,Freedom from Want, 12.

17 Bulosan, Carlos.  “Hymn to a Man Who Failed” in If You Want to Know What We Are: A Carlos Bulosan Reader, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. (USA: West End Press, 1983), 73.

18 Id.

19 Id.

20 Bulosan, Carlos.  “I Want the Wide American Earth” in If You Want to Know What We Are: A Carlos Bulosan Reader, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. (USA: West End Press, 1983), 75.

21 Id.,Before the brave…(77); Free men everywhere… (75)

22 Id. at 75

Bibliography

Bulosan, Carlos, “Freedom From Want.” Saturday Evening Post. March 6, 1943.
_____________,  “The Romance of Magno Rubio.” Ameriasia Journal, edited by ______,Vol. 6: May 1, 1979.
 ____________, “Be American” in On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).
____________, “Hymn to a Man Who Failed” and “I Want The Wide American Earth” in If you want to know what we are: A Carlos Bulosan Reader, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. (USA: West End Press: 1983).
Corcoran Gallery of Art, “Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Paintings that Inspired a Nation.” http://www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/previous_results.asp?Exhib_ID=98# (accessed 12/25/08)

Roosevelt, Franklin D. “The Four Freedoms.” http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/od4frees.html. (accessed 11/19/08)  

© Martin L. Magnaye

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