Never imagine, Dear Reader, that these treks into our common past are the sloppy rants of a senile mind deranged by worship of the roseate past. I seek a narrative in which the past informs the present and even the future.
Still, nostalgia can’t help creeping in. It’s only natural. That’s what nostalgia does.
Some folks think we are damned lucky to have stumbled into the light of the present from out of the stinking cesspit of the past; others see that same past as a golden age casting its fading twilight beams on the regrettable present. These are, seriously, two competing theories of history. Both are fueled by powerful emotions as much as by objective facts.
Two Views of History
A confused undergraduate at Knox College in the 1960s, I mumbled through a seminar taught by Prof. Douglas Wilson, which compared the writings and worldviews of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain,” 1835-1910) and Henry Adams (1838-1918). The two men were contemporaries; they lived through pretty much the same history. Yet they brought with them different backgrounds, and they reached different conclusions.
In those days I was not paying much attention to scholarship, but I seem to recall hearing that Clemens, who when young had piloted the era’s most advanced riverboats, undeniably belonged to the forward-looking 19th century. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written by one who saw antiquity as not merely quaint but benighted and probably dangerous. Even in his literary life he embraced modernity, from the typewriter to the Paige compositor, an early typesetting machine. A modern man.
Henry Adams was the scion of New England’s most distingished family. The great Adamses—Samuel, John and Abigail, and John Quincy (Henry’s grandfather)—were denizens of the recent past, imbibers of the heady wine of revolution and republicanism. But Henry’s own eyes had seen the disastrous Civil War and the rapacious, ugly “Gilded Age” that followed. These alarming developments neither Henry nor his scholar-diplomat father, Charles Francis Adams, could prevent. In later years, Henry adored the High Gothic period—the last time, as he saw it, that mankind was united around high Christian principles. The Gothic arch symbolized, to him, the rapid plunge from an unsustainable zenith. All the glories of the West were doomed to perdition.
In times of stress and disintegration, people yearn for simpler, more graceful and natural times. This came to mind on a recent reading—in some cases, a re-reading—of short stories by Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney, 1911-1995), collected in a 1986 book called About Time.
Finney, another Knox College alum, was a successful fiction writer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He specialized in evoking the pleasant reverberations of days gone by. Many of his stories featured time travel, in one way or another. Most of them were a little spooky—paranormal, if you will. He is fondly remembered for his novel Time and Again, in which a 1960s ad agency man is selected for a secret government project to travel back in time—back to the New York City of 1911, to be precise. His other major work was The Body Snatchers, which was adapted for film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is, as far as I can tell, the locus classicus for the concept of “pod people” intent on replacing Earth’s citizens, one by one, with exact but soulless duplicates. Told through Finney’s trademark regular-guy persona, the prospect is remarkably chilling.
Even in Body Snatchers, Finney displays a concern with the gradual deterioration of a gracious social and physical environment over time; but it’s even more prominent in Time and Again and in his many short stories, such as “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” On nearly every page we sense, through his fictional characters, the author’s yearning to be back “in the good old days.”
Finney was not the only twentieth-century writer sounding that theme. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had a streak of it, as shown in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Serling’s own favorite story from the first season of the series, “A Stop at Willoughby” shows a modern New Yorker under pressure at home and at work, who discovers an special stop on his commuter train that leads to an idyllic town of the 1880s, a place where he longs to escape. I won’t spoil the ending, in case you wish to access it here.
Old codgers like me are easily beguiled by the charms of old times. We remember those times, and it is easier to remember the good bits than the other bits. But an honest understanding of history must include the dark spots. There were too many of them, and they contributed too much to our present straits, to think of omitting them.
At the same time, it seems to require the perspective of age to affirm, praise, and if possible rescue essential goods of the past that have been too easily swept aside, left bobbing in the wake of society’s mad rush to perfect the human beast in the present for the sake of a utopian future.
Somewhere in the weighing and balancing of these conflicting claims, some valid, actionable truth of history may reside. I wouldn’t know. I only write the stories.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author