I am a Twentieth-Century Man—the very embodiment of up-to-date-itude.
I am sleek and powerful, like the Super Chief and the Twentieth Century Limited, streamlined trains that could whisk you from coast to coast in under three days. I am as modern as a 1955 Chevrolet, as efficient as a new Amana refrigerator with its Stor-More door, as timeless as a Sheaffer White Dot fountain pen.
To me, the twentieth century signifies modernity. To my grandchildren, it sounds antique. Even their mother, my daughter, looks askance when I say “the greatest thing since sliced bread” or “hold your horses” or “now you’re cooking with gas!”
Katie, born in 1976, has at least one foot in my century. Elsie and Tristan are innocent of all centuries but the twenty-first, poor darlings. They will live their lives in a postmodern world. It makes me shudder.
My grandparents were born in the nineteenth century, but all four of them lived past the midpoint of the twentieth. They were old-fashioned people. When they were young, horseless carriages, hot-and-cold running water, and indoor toilets were new things. They lived life before modernity came along.
People in those days were conscious of passing a century mark. As the year 1900 approached, the term fin de siècle came to denote the years of the 1880s and 1890s. “Fin de siècle” only means “end of century,” but the fancy French term gave dignity to an uneasy sense of living at the end of Time itself. After great wars in Europe and America, life had become stately, decorous, refined, and calm. Pointillist painter Georges Seurat captured it with A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86). But people knew that orderly society could not last long.
When the calendar rolled over, nothing much happened. Folks just had to remember to write “19__” on their checks. A new term, la Belle Époque, the Beautiful Age, seemed to describe the opening years of the twentieth century. In England, it was the Edwardian era; in America you might recall the setting of Vincente Minelli’s excellent film Meet Me in St. Louis. On both sides of the Pond, it was a time of continued calm.
But chaos lurked around the corner. War erupted in 1914, and all the European states joined in. The hounds of hell got loose. Nothing was the same after that.
Many historians say the Modern period of history ended in 1914 and everything since has been, for want of a better word, postmodern. After two world wars and a host of smaller ones, two global pandemics, and three or more technological revolutions, we feel somewhat the worse for wear.
I was privileged to be born and raised in the eye of the storm—the Postwar Years from 1945 to 1963 when everything seemed normal. But by the 1990s, I had pretty much forgotten that idea. The shooting of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 marked the beginning of endless turmoil. A long war in Southeast Asia, race riots and Marxist-inspired student uprisings, and political scandals at home.
No wonder when another turn of the century approached, we were spooked. Like our ancestors a hundred years before, we seemed to be living at the end of Time itself. At the turn of the millennium, we would be ruined merely by the Law of Unintended Consequences. Society was scheduled to implode on January 1, 2000—when clocks built into all computer programs would fail to demarcate events correctly. At long last, Chicken Little would be vindicated. The sky would fall.
I worked for the adjutant general of Wisconsin, in the Department of Military Affairs, closely allied with the Division of Emergency Management. On New Year’s Eve—December 31, 1999—I huddled with a few other bureaucrats in the state’s emergency operations center, waiting for a deluge of news media representatives seeking information on the cascading disaster for the ten o’clock news.
Once again, nothing happened. All we had to do was remember to write “20__” on our checks. (We still used paper back then.) It turned out the nation’s computer boffins had fixed the Y2K bug ahead of time. It was a non-event.
There ensued a brief period of calm. But on September 11, 2001, our world caved in when terrorists attacked the United States. There followed a difficult and troublesome Global War on Terror, a major financial meltdown, additional wars, and then a highly virulent global pandemic.
Where will this all end?
I do not know. All that I do know is that the future is unpredictable.
Why then do I continually harp on the past, trying to bring vanished scenes and happenings back to people’s consciousness? I just think if you know about the past, you’ll have a better chance of recognizing the future when it treads upon your toe.
Somebody—most likely not Mark Twain—said, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
Larry F. Sommers
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