I should have foreseen that my golden retirement years would echo with the sound of tables being pounded. Many of my retired contemporaries see our beloved country headed toward some catastrophic final precipice. The signs are everywhere: sexual license, gay marriage, legal abortion, widespread divorce, the decline of the family dinner, PG-13 sex and mayhem, HBO, and on and on. As one of the most public of the table-pounders put it, our country is sinking into a swamp of depravity.
I point out that our Depression-graduate, World-War-II-veteran parents said the same about our generation and the decade of the ’50s. We couldn’t arise from a chair, I say, without demonstrating some kind of bratty entitlement. The “jungle rhythms” we danced to were thinly disguised invitations to sexual indulgence and drug use (my mother was suspicious of “See You Later, Alligator,” a song whose title is a kind of universal farewell among today’s preschoolers). The commies were taking over or were planning to destroy us with nuclear weapons, while the blacks were rioting in the streets, demanding equality without working for it the way we did, and so on and on. And yet, I ask, this is the era of stability and virtue that you wish the country to return to?
But the present age is really depraved, reply the table-pounders, and they go on pounding. The more vocal and articulate of the pounders of my acquaintance are Christian clergy members, familiar with the prophetic and apocalyptic writings of the Bible, accustomed to taking a dim view of the secular world and its prospects.
One of the benefits of my 30 years of teaching classes in secular literature has been an acquired sense of the constancy of human nature. Odysseus the Bronze Age hero is still — 2,500 years later — Everyman trying to get home. Huckleberry Finn is every kid setting out into a hostile world in search of himself. During a class discussion of a battle scene in “The Iliad,” one of my students, a Gulf War veteran, hurriedly left the room, Homer’s ancient narrative having awakened some dark memories.
The literary character that the table-pounders mostly remind me of is Mrs. Costello, Frederick Winterborne’s aunt in Henry James’ short novel, “Daisy Miller.” Winterborne, the novel’s central character, is a wealthy American expatriate living in Geneva in the early 1880s. While visiting his aunt at a resort hotel on Lake Geneva, he is fascinated by an American teenage girl, the eponymous Daisy, who is very pretty and very unconventional. Not that she’s in any way sexually enticing: she’s dressed from throat to ankles in many layers of clothing designed to conceal the contours of her body — this in an age when even chair and table legs were draped, lest they excite the young.
Yet Daisy’s behavior is unconventional. She talks freely to Winterborne, even before they have been formally introduced. She has many gentlemen friends back in America, who entertain her at unchaperoned dinners. She proposes to accompany Winterborne on a midnight boat ride on Lake Geneva, unchaperoned (the very idea!). She actually does accompany him on a daytime tour of the Castle of Chillon, again unchaperoned (Winterborne, that naughty boy, bribes the guide to keep his distance).
Mrs. Costello, an elderly American widow living in Europe, thoroughly disapproves of Daisy. She is shocked by her friendly relationships with men, the unchaperoned freedom with which she moves about the world. She advises Winterborne to stay away from her, and raises the possibility that Daisy is not, as Winterborne had thought, a delightfully innocent girl discovering the world, but a libertine. She is the voice of tradition in the novel, expressing the values of a mid-19th-century society in which the conduct of respectable young women was regulated to an extent we would consider oppressive.
To make Daisy’s situation understandable to my GenX and millennial American-lit students, most of them still teenagers, many of them in sexual relationships, I had to pull off a major job of cultural reconstruction. Remove all those petticoats, add a few tattoos and piercings, put her into a public world immeasurably freer for women (indeed, for all of us), and you’ve got a teenage millennial in search of an adult identity that she herself chooses, that is not chosen for her by Mrs. Costello’s 21st-century counterparts.
Now let’s fast-forward from Mrs. Costello’s ideal 1850s to the 1950s, the world that my table-pounding contemporaries and I grew up in, a world that seems to be the pounders’ normative era of civic and domestic virtue. What would Mrs. Costello think of short shirts and tight sweaters, rock ’n’ roll, unchaperoned dating, making out in the back seats of those “bedrooms on wheels,” as my grandmother called the automobiles that we young folks were always gadding about in? What would Mrs. C. make of the divorces that were becoming increasingly common in the ’50s and that would, by the early 1980s, end more than half of the country’s marriages? Divorce was scandalous in the 19th century, when divorce novels like “Anna Karenina” and “A Modern Instance” were the racy “50 Shades of Grey” of their day. Of course, the good old lady would be deeply shocked. Swamp of depravity indeed!
So Mrs. Costello and my table-pounding contemporaries measure the depravity of the present against virtuous past eras that are morally irreconcilable. What do these remembered pasts have in common? The youth and health and vitality of the rememberers, of course; the likelihood of long future lives; the authority of parents and church and school in teaching the values and rules of the day — values and rules that were bound to change in a changing world.
One of the most reassuring characteristics of the remembered past is our knowledge of that past’s future — of what will happen. We know now that Communists did not destroy our democracy, that the bomb did not destroy civilization, that racial integration in our schools did not “undermine the nation’s moral fiber.”
Yet we couldn’t know these reassuring outcomes at the time, and so we worried about the trends of the moment and about a future we could only dimly foresee.
The 1950s were not “simpler and happier” times. The decade opened with the Korean War, which in just three brutal years killed 36,000 Americans (along with more than a million Koreans).
Then we had the Red Scare and Sen. Joe McCarthy, the decade’s own Donald Trump, and the civil rights movement and subsequent white riots and police brutality and resurgence of the KKK. The U.S. tested a multimegaton H-bomb, and so the Soviet Union developed its own H-bomb, and schoolchildren from Minneapolis to Minsk cowered under their desks. In the pre-seatbelt year of 1955, the rate of traffic accident fatalities was two and a half times what it is today, while in the ’50s the rate of child mortality was twice what it was in 2014. And all of this international tension and social unrest were a prelude to the wars and riots and assassinations of the astonishing 1960s.
Yet the 1950s were also a great time to grow up. We early boomers took for granted a level of prosperity unknown to our parents (hence the “entitled brats” moniker). We enjoyed a degree of unsupervised freedom that would shock today’s helicopter parents. We mostly grew up in stable, two-parent homes (biological parents of the opposite sex, of course) and came home from our free-range play to formal family dinners from which we could not be excused until we’d finished our vegetables.
The 1950s were the best of times, they were the worst of times, much like Mrs. Costello’s 1850s, much like today. The table-pounders remember the best of their formative decades and see only the worst of the present. I much prefer the present day’s freedom of expression and of conduct to the conformity of the ’50s, though I am sometimes shocked by it. I much prefer the progress toward equality achieved by women and minorities to the repressions of the ’50s, though I’m occasionally skeptical of the means and the rhetoric of the seekers after equality.
During my years of teaching college composition, I would read in my students’ essays of a degree of social disorder quite beyond my experience: broken homes (as we called them in the ’50s); conflict with stepdads and stepmoms and parental girlfriends and boyfriends; the uncertainties of multiple households; the tensions of blended families; occasional abuse and neglect and stretches in juvie and rehab; a succession of sexual relationships, “out of wedlock” children.
Yet whenever I was tempted to see symptoms of impending social disintegration, I would be reassured by the students themselves. For all their piercings and tattoos, all the flux and disorder of their domestic lives, all their casual sexual relationships, most of these young men and women seemed as focused, as grounded, as determined to improve their lives and their communities as were we children of the ’50s. The millennials give me hope (though my GenX daughter dismisses them as “entitled brats.”)
Even when writing in his early lucid style, Henry James is almost more trouble than he’s worth, and so, with apologies to Mrs. Costello, I advise my table-pounding friends to read not “Daisy Miller” but Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” This Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, first produced in 1942, in the shadow of the Great Depression and during the darkest hours of World War II, explores the constancy of natural and human-made disasters in history and the constancy of humanity’s survival “by the skin of our teeth,” and of our slow-but-sure progress toward a more humane world.
And I urge the Mrs. Costellos of my generation to discern and encourage, without judgment, that which is good in a world that is, as it’s always been, both good and bad, in the hope that humankind will endure, and maybe even prevail.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.