November twenty-six, nineteen hundred sixty three: poem

Berry, Wendell and Shahn, Ben.
November twenty six, nineteen hundred sixty three: poem.
New York, N.Y.: G. Braziller, 1964. (27519)

From the Levi A. Olan Collection of Fine Books, this poem by Wendell Berry (b. 1934) published and illustrated by Ben Shahn (1898–1969) expresses the shock and horror of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Shahn felt that Berry’s poem, first published in The Nation, was “right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail.”

Shahn sets the scene for the poem with pen and ink wash: a winter landscape, a still body, animals and children, mourners, the quietness of the cities, and the sharp contrast of light and the blackest dark. The text is hand-lettered by Shahn in black ink throughout. The chosen opening reads: “We know ourselves, the bearers of the light of the earth he is given to, and of the light of all his lost days.” The illustration features two faces, one light and one dark, the light face grieving and angry, the dark face with no life, a life lost.

The boldness of the text against the washes of imagery echoes the tragedy and starkness of the event. While the imagery can be seen in some ways light and airy and reminiscent of everyday life, the text reminds us the harsh reality of that day.

Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist. He is best known for his expressive figurative paintings and as a member of the Social Realist movement. His work is tied to social justice and lifelong activism within his political beliefs. Shahn was apprenticed to a lithographer at fourteen and grew to appreciate the relationships of lettering. This culminated in posters designed for the Office of War and other government departments.

© 2021 Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

November twenty-six, nineteen hundred sixty three: poem