Another Golden Age Myth
I will have to buy Michael Lesy’s Long Time Coming, if for no other reason than to see exactly what Lesy highlights as significant and avoid what the “critics” say about the book. I’m glad that wood s lot pointed at a review — but (and a very big but at that) — I get really sick of reading crap like this:
Here in this book we have a window on American life from sixty or seventy years ago and one cannot help but yearn for the way we were then, our fine innocence, the willingness to help, the desire … no, the need to interact with others around us.
It was a quiet joy, a trust in our surroundings and the people who made up our town or city life and there was, throughout, the knowledge that things would get better, that the world had life and an intensity of purpose that was America in 1935 or 1941.
We look at photographs of boys on their bicycles or girls jumping rope and know that now they would never be allowed out of the eyesight of their parents for a moment for the streets of America are lined with fear — every city, town, village has had its wellspring of joy poisoned by the vision of anger and greed that the media dumps, daily, over us all — the message that one’s life is in constant danger, that there is a viciousness in the house next door, down the street, in the alleys, under the shadows that block the sunlight from what used to be the civil world and dreams of America.
Our America continues to be under assault by the mavens of a brute media, one that turns our children afraid in a world that was once civil, trusting, hopeful; makes them enforced paranoiacs who see mayhem and the threat violence in every corner. It is no longer the American Way of Life, it is The American Way of Terror.
What does this have to do with Lesy’s book? Very little, I suspect. It’s the impression of a reviewer, who confuses the subject with his own agenda—a nostalgia for a golden age.
My parents came of age during this period. They were in the waves of migrants who explored America looking for a better life. The nostalgia reflected in these comments has never been a part of their memory. One of my father’s sisters was a saloon girl. My grandmother was intensely paranoid, and worried about her daughter hanging out with a bad crowd. My father “did his part” for the war effort—as a welder in aircraft factories and such—but never for a moment confused “doing what is right” with the equally important matter of earning a living. They moved across the country, not to “do their part,” but to just plain survive. The world they knew was hostile to them—Okies were not greeted by Californians with “willingness to help, the desire … no, the need to interact with others around us.” To resort to a crass word— that is utter bullshit.
The 1930s and 40s were paranoid times, as filled with fear as right now. As a matter of fact, the pervasive presence of this supposed “golden age” has a deep influence on us right now. That is the point of any good history. We live in a constant state of nostalgia, and the cracks in the sidewalks of all those idyllic small towns are still with us today. Sherwood Anderson knew that. Erskine Caldwell knew that. James Agee knew that. Why can’t we figure that out now?
Because it is easier to reduce the past to fable, to simplify it into worn-out aphorisms and just get on with the business of feeling bad about ourselves. My father calls that time “the bad old days” with a certain amount of nostalgia. Would he want to go back? Not on your life. Is today better? Not really, in my opinion— or the opinion of my parents who were there. It’s just the same—only different.
The media maelstrom the reviewer decries was born in the 1930s. A look at Bourke-White and Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces would reveal the tension, then and now, between suffering and the explosion of unifying media. People in run-down shacks used bales of advertising circulars and signs not to “dream of a better life” but instead to keep out the cold in the world they lived in—distinctly at odds with any proposed unified “golden age” intent.
I really hate in when a reviewer just plain misses the point—the message of the artists working at this time—in favor of expressing their own nostalgia for a past that never was. I have a great deal of respect for Michael Lesy. I’m sure his book deserves far better than this.