Some decades are better than others. And history is everything they never told you. I take these truths to be self-evident.
Oh, how I long for the Roaring '20s, when women breathed in the social oxygen of freedom to vote, cut their hair, moved to the city, and danced the Charleston. I thought the 1940s were a time in the sun, too, until I read Richard Lingeman's new social history and memoir, The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War (Nation Books). Lingeman persuasively argues that no sooner had the soldiers come home in a peacetime glow that we plunged into war—the Cold War—again, with devastating consequences at home. The social conformity and blacklisting we associate with the 1950s, he says, really got underway in the late 1940s.
Sadly, America's populist New Deal and wartime spirit vanished. Lingeman was a young man then and writes partly from his own experience. He cuts against the usual "Greatest" narrative of the G.I. Bill generation, in his fine attention and sympathy to what was lost along the way.
In our shared memory, the George W. Bush years—let's say the Naught decade starting in 2000—have got be the worst we've ever suffered together. I mean, really. Have you heard what Irish novelist James Joyce once wrote: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Slowly we are waking up now from the wars and hurt he inflicted on the country and the world. In a strange way, we're better positioned to understand two new accounts of the worst of times. We can bring our own shattered Naught nerves to enjoy the reads.
That brings me to Jefferson Morley's journey to 1830s "Washington City" in a stunning new work of cultural history: Snow-Storm in August. Bush's doppelganger, Andrew Jackson was the man in the executive mansion and, by the way, owned 100 slaves himself down south at his plantation, the Hermitage, near Nashville. By investigating an 1835 race riot in the nation's capital, the author deftly reveals just how dark and racially charged life often was in an American city then, including those with a community of free blacks who kept an eye out for trouble.
Without proper police forces and burgeoning numbers of residents, the larger cities could not control mob violence, even if they tried. This was true of Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore, Washington's neighbor, as well. And there was plenty of small town violence against blacks and whites seen as subversive to white supremacy. In Alton, a Mississippi River town in southern Illinois, a white abolitionist publisher, Elijah Lovejoy, was murdered by a mob of leading citizens in 1837. Let's just say the 1830s were not a nice time not to be a rich white male.
Taken together, these are a pair of valuable volumes, seamlessly written and stuffed full of original scholarship. The writers are journalists—Lingeman is senior editor of The Nation in New York and Morley is the senior Washington correspondent for Salon. They give the sense that they reported out the story they tell. Morley literally maps out a Washington City long gone—and seems to be at the scene to have interview his dead and forgotten characters. There are, however, two famous historical characters that enliven the plot, giving it a shiver of recognition: the rich, handsome lawyer-poet-slaveowner Francis Scott Key and his brother-in-law, the hateful, ugly racist Roger Taney, who became the Chief Justice of the United States in 1836.
Yes, Taney was Jackson's pick. Yes, Key and Taney were Marylanders, which made them Southerners. Key, Washington City's district attorney, was a close adviser to President Jackson and lobbied for Taney's (spoken as "Tawny" in a Southern accent) appointment. Washington, below the Mason-Dixon line, was Southern too, very much so, with slaves for sale and doing labor out in the streets.
But who knew the composer of "The Star-Spangled Banner" lyrics in 1814 was related to the author of the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857? That's something they never told you. That goes to show how small-town Southern the dominant class was in antebellum America. The widely reviled ruling held blacks had no claim under any circumstances, ever, to the rights of citizenship and helped set off the Civil War.
Let me continue with the earlier episode, the 1835 race riot. It was caused by a slave who threatened his widow-mistress with murder. In the ensuing unrest, white men attacked the property of free blacks, including a popular elegant eatery run by Beverly Snow on Sixth and Pennsylvania. Snow was known for his scrumptious Chesapeake green turtle.
The gruff general and war hero, Jackson is admired by historians (Robert's father, the prominent Arthur Schlesinger foremost among them) as a democratic populist with a common touch. He undergoes some re-evaluation here, as head of the "Slave power." Yet he showed the milk of human kindness by responding to the widow's plea to pardon her slave, Arthur Bowen, from death. Working on a large canvas, Morley succeeds in his ambitious aim to humanize many whose names, faces and voices were lost to time.
Lingeman turns to the screen of crime dramas popular in the 1940s to prove his hypothesis that the American psyche was walking wounded, turning anxious with bottled-up fears left from the war coloring their civilian lives."The world was dead and I was living," is a line from the 1948 film, Night has a Thousand Eyes, one of many script lines Lingeman distributes in his text. What many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are rocked by now—alienation, explosions in their heads, and post-traumatic stress— matches up with what G.I.s felt back then. That should come as no surprise, but a happy face has been painted on that generation.
Some two million women in the wartime work force suddenly left their jobs, many shown the door as men came home. They suddenly lost oxygen. Once married, they were expected to be happy with all their new home appliances before the babies came along. Levittown was not far behind.
Meanwhile, master of malice J. Edgar Hoover was setting the stage for his grand passion of hunting Communists. This began as early as 1947, when the FBI director appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
And it only gets worse. Unions were under siege in the post-war 1940s. Hollywood was investigated for Communists. Joseph McCarthy comes to Washington as a new Republican senator. President Truman, regrettably, allowed our newly renamed Department of Defense—with a grand new Pentagon—to shift to a hostile posture toward the Soviet Union. In Lingeman's view, he was unduly influenced by Defense Secretary James Forrestal, who sounds a lot like Paul Wolfowitz in scaring up a war. Public opinion soon followed. For the next 40 years, we had the perfect enemy.
Lingeman beautifully blends the arts and music into his sweeping analysis of the politics of the period. Thus the "voices of the people"— including artists—are heard here, as they are in Morley's book. They do readers a real service by not trying to make the bitter sweet. No easy happy endings.
The skills of these two writerly historians have not gone to Naught.
- Read Susan Milligan: Pushing STEM Over Liberal Arts Education Is Just Bad Business
- Read Mary Kate Cary: Obama Doesn't Have Leverage in Fiscal Cliff Negotiations
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