Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Today in History

some thoughts on today in history by Ned Stuckey-French, author of The American Essay in the American Century

Today is the 138th (!) birthday of the great American novelist, short story writer and essayist Willa Cather. Here is the opening of A Lost Lady (1923): "Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere. Well known, that is to say, to the railroad aristocracy of the time; men who had to do with the railroad itself, or with one of the “land companies” which were its by-products. In those days it was enough to say of a man that he was “connected with the Burlington.” There were the directors, the general managers, vice-presidents, superintendents, who names we all knew; and their younger brothers were auditors, freight agents, departmental assistants. Everyone “connected” with the Road, even the large cattle- and grain-shippers, had annual passes; they and their families rode about over the line a great deal. There were then two distinct social strata in the prairie States; the homesteaders and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to “develop our great West,” as they used to tell us."

I love the ominousness of "greyer," the way the word begins to hint at decline and at a critique of American exceptionalism; the list of titles and "connectedness" that reminds us of the incorporation of America during the last half of the 19th century; the mixed and souring nostalgia for the railroad without mentioning explicitly that the Road is being replaced by the automobile and Fordism; the ironizing quotation marks and veiled dig at a nepotism that undercuts the meritocratic American Dream; and finally, especially, the subtle shift to a first-person plural in which that disembodied narrative voice is at least partially embodied and placed in an "us" that is talked to and at by that aforementioned ruling class of "connected" corporate managers and land speculators.

The photo is of Cather and her college sweetheart/friend Louis Pound, who would become a noted folklorist and the first woman president of the Modern Language Association.
Before FDR went to Congress to ask for a Declaration of War and brand Dec. 7 "a day which will live in infamy," Eleanor published her daily column: "WASHINGTON, DECEMBER 8, 1941 - I was going out in the hall to say goodbye to our cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Adams, and their children, after luncheon, and, as I stepped out of my room, I knew something had happened. All the secretaries were there, two telephones were in use, the senior military aides were on their way with messages. I said nothing because the words I heard over the telephone were quite sufficient to tell me that, finally, the blow had fallen, and we had been attacked.

Attacked in the Philippines, in Hawaii, and on the ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii. Our people had been killed not suspecting there was an enemy, who attacked in the usual ruthless way which Hitler has prepared us to suspect.

Because our nation has lived up to the rules of civilization, it will probably take us a few days to catch up with our enemy, but no one in this country will doubt the ultimate outcome. None of us can help but regret the choice which Japan has made, but having made it, she has taken on a coalition of enemies she must underestimate unless she believes we have sadly deteriorated since our first ships sailed into her harbor.

The clouds of uncertainty and anxiety have been hanging over us for a long time. Now we know where we are. The work for those who are at home seems to be obvious. First, to do our own job, whatever it is, as well as we can possibly do it. Second, to add to it everything we can do in the way of civilian defense. Now, at last, every community, must go to work to build up protection from attack.

We must build up the best possible community services, so that all of our people may feel secure because they know we are standing together and that whatever problems have to be met will be met by the community and not one lone individual. There is no weakness and insecurity when once this is understood."

Photo - Eleanor visits Pearl Harbor in 1943.

1 comment:

Ned Stuckey-French said...

Thanks for the opportunity, Jennifer. One correction -- I meant to write "Louise Pound," not "Louis Pound."

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