A couple months ago, I completed reading through my lists of books for the decade 1940-1949; the first stage of MY BIG FAT READING PROJECT (see earlier posts in the archives.) The project consists of reading the top ten bestsellers of each year plus a selected list of other books, with the purpose of getting an understanding of each year as portrayed in books, as well as to see how the literature and events of these years influenced me, my life, my search for truth, enlightenment and understanding about life. I was born in 1947, but I started reading the books of 1940 to get a feel for the times I was born into.
I have already learned more than could have imagined from this reading. I have found out more than I ever knew I didn't know about World War II. I have discovered how earnest and wholesome many people were in the 1940s; that Christianity made for bestsellers back then; that war and the Industrial Revolution, communism and socialism were beginning to erode all those values and to create chaos. It has been a fascinating study made through fiction.
In 1940, my parents were in college, finishing their junior year and starting their senior year. Here is some background on my family:
My ancestors on both sides are all German. My father's great-great-grandfather was born in 1775 in the Duchy of Brunswick, part of the German kingdom called Hanover. His family were farmers and had lived there for centuries. There is possibly some Swedish blood in the family and we certainly have a proportion of blonde-haired, blue-eyed family members. This ancestor of my father was a soldier from the age of 16 and although he was illiterate, he could speak six languages, including German, Dutch, Low German, some English and a little Swedish. He settled in Osnabruck (still in Hanover) and married a tenant farmer's daughter. They had 5 children, three of whom lived. The youngest of these was my father's great-grandfather who was named Balthasar Henry, but was known as Willie.
Willie became a spinner of flax and a tailor, but the cotton that was being imported from America took over from flax and put Willie out of business. In 1837, he sailed with many other German emigrants from the North Sea and arrived in Baltimore, MD on July 4. From there he walked to Pittsburgh, PA in ten days. Although he had intended to go to Cincinnati, OH, he was tired of walking and stayed in Pittsburgh. About six years later, after establishing himself as a tailor and opening his own shop, he married. He was 32 and his new wife was 22. They had three sons and three daughters. The youngest son, born August 3, 1854 and named William was my father's grandfather. He also became a tailor.
William married a preacher's daughter and had nine children, the eighth of which was my grandfather, Ernest August, born in 1892 and a third generation American. He married the daughter of a grocery store owner. Two of his brothers married my grandmother's sisters. Ernest and my grandmother lived in her childhood home at first, a tradition that would continue when my parents married and lived in my father's childhood home until my first sister was about to be born. My dad's parents were church-going Lutherans and heavy drinkers. My grandmother did not learn to drive until around the time I was born and I recall her riding the brake down the many hills of Pittsburgh. My grandfather was an accountant and went to work everyday on the streetcar, as did my father when I was an infant and toddler.
This side of my family had several ministers, some alcoholics and some who went insane. Both of my grandparents were alcoholics and my father probably was too, though he got sober in his late 50s and remained so to the end of his life. My father was highly intelligent, deeply spiritual and totally committed to the family. He died of Alzheimer's leading to pneumonia at the age of 84, but could still sing all the old hymns and Christmas carols as well as harmonize to anyone else's singing.
Less is known about my mother's family. She is still living and in her words, her family never talked about anything. Her ancestors were also German but there is little information that anyone remembers about when they came to this country. Her grandfather Charles, married Mathilda, who came to the United States when she was eight years old. These great-grandparents of mine lived in Fraser, Michigan, near Detroit. My grandfather on this side of the family, also named Charles, was born March 16, 1887. He had two brothers and one sister. At some point the family moved to Port Hope, Michigan, a small town in the thumb district right on Lake Michigan. Grandpa married Emma, one of seven children from a farming family near Port Hope. His sister married Howard Smith, a banker and co-owner of the hardware store in Port Hope. My grandfather eventually took over that hardware store and ran it until the Depression in the 1930s. After their first child was born in 1915, he and my grandmother bought a house on M25, facing Lake Michigan. We visited that house every summer of my childhood.
Grandpa worked all his life but he was at heart a musician, liked to play drums in local bands and to have a good time. He was always frustrated at working jobs that did not use his musical talents. My grandmother was a fearful woman who was terrified of storms, never drove a car and hated the telephone. She was a prolific gardener and an excellent cook but not much fun to be around. She had four children but was often in poor health due to a bad back, though she lived to be 93. My mother was the second child and when she was three years old, was sent to live with Aunt Lydia and Uncle Howard. Grandma was done in by the birth of my mom's sister and Aunt Lydia had lost her only daughter at the age of eight. Mom thought she was going for a week, but she never went back home to live, only to visit on weekends. After the hardware store failed in the Depression, times were tight and my mother used to tell us how she only had two dresses for school. She wore one for a week and the other for the next week. This story was usually told when I would clamor for new clothes. She did not get along well with her aunt, who was a bitter and critical woman, but she loved Uncle Howard, who recovered financially and paid for her college education.
Although my mother was a year older than my father, she skipped one grade during school and my father skipped two, so they both arrived as freshmen at Valparaiso University in Indiana in 1937. This was and still is a Lutheran school and my father was sent there on his parent's money supplemented by a scholarship from a Lutheran insurance company. He wrote for the university paper, drank heavily with fraternity brothers and sang in the choir. My mother majored in music education, studied organ and also sang in the choir, which is where they met.
In 1940, they were not yet a couple. Though the war was raging in Europe, it did not have much effect on college life. Germany took Norway, Denmark, Holland and France that year and were being bombed by England, but the United States was not yet involved. In fact there was quite a lot a sentiment in this country against having anything to do with Europe's troubles. President Roosevelt however was all for getting involved and there was a lot of stirring up about how democracy and the American way of life was at risk. Actually it probably was at that point and still is. By the end of the year, Roosevelt had pushed through Congress lots of money for armaments, started a draft to build up the military, exchanged destroyers with England and got us a bunch of naval bases all around Europe and Africa. He also got re-elected for a third term.
In the literature I read for 1940, there is a preponderance of books about war and the message is clearly that war is not a solution. I was mildly surprised at first to find the writers of fiction to be almost unanimously against war. There is also a strong religious theme in many of these books. God is alive and well in America of 1940. (For the list of books I read, see my post of October 30, 2005.)
Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, won the Pulitzer Prize. There were no Nobel prizes that year due to the war. In those days, those were the only big awards for literature.
In film, Gone With the Wind won Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming) and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh). Goodbye Mr Chips, based on a book by James Hilton, won Best Actor (Robert Donat). Popular songs were: You Are My Sunshine, How High the Moon, When You Wish Upon A Star and Blueberry Hill.
Technological developments that year included the building of the cyclotron at the University of California, which allowed scientists to split atoms; the development of a form of penicillin practical for treating infection; the first combustion chamber for jet engines, the first electron microscope and the first successful helicopter flight. Whether they realized it or not, science was setting the stage for the most destructive war mankind had ever known.
What I see in the literature is a clinging to the old answers such as religion and family with the creeping in of decay, evil and breakdown. While the writers are not pro war, the readers want to be reassured that there is something to fight for and, as always, to be entertained. The people I came from were trying to get an education and better themselves, to rise above farming and blue collar professions, to keep the arts in their lives and to follow their religion. My father wanted to be a teacher and my mother a musician. They loved classical music and were both readers. For thinking men and women and for writers, it was a time of trying to come to terms with war, with struggles for freedom and equality and with finding a way to achieve the goals of mankind without mass killing.
When an individual wants power and is not himself in very good shape, he can go to the not-haves and rile them up and get them to fight for some better future life, because they have nothing to lose. Nor do they have the education or intelligence to see that they are being duped and merely used for the empowerment and enrichment of a few unscrupulous individuals. That has been going on for eons, but in the early 20th century the rise of communism and fascism was happening along with the beginnings of a new era of struggles for equality and independence amongst the downtrodden. I can see influences in the literature that could have led to my interest in the underdog, the unfortunate and the forgotten of the world. Of course, those ideas also came from my Christian upbringing, especially as taught to me by my parents, but I found that the poor, the immigrant, Blacks, Jews, women and basically all the oppressed were in the literature and minds of Americans in 1940.
The voices in these books are distinct even if they are from the same time. Richard Llewellyn is romantic, Christopher Morely ironic, Hemingway is earnest and even optimistic, Sholem Asch is dreary (of course he was also Polish), Kenneth Roberts is a bit stuffy and know-best and Steinbeck is downright spiritual. Yet all the books so far are about the plight of man and his dreams and how he adapts to change. The haves against the have-nots is a common theme as well as war. Also there are the able versus the not able, the trustworthy, hardworking types versus the riffraff, yet among the riffraff are those occasional creatures who are wily, adventurous and actually keep the others in tea and cakes or fight their battles for them.
The theme of change and what happens to those who can't deal with it is a major theme in my life, which I suppose began with the Industrial Revolution. As far as being American goes, I come from people who desired change, to whom the status quo was intolerable, who came to this country with hopes and dreams and who had the incredible work ethic necessary to make it in a new land and culture.
While reading a couple of the more frivolous books, I was thinking about how there was this terrible war going on in Europe, the Germans are just taking over countries and slaughtering people, while Americans are trying to pretend that it isn't happening and has nothing to do with them. They are buying and reading love stories while talking about how bad things are in Europe. It seemed incredible to me, but then I thought about how after 9/11, some award shows got cancelled and the Spider Man movie wasn't released because it had the Twin Towers in it and people were all upset and flying flags on their cars, but in just a few months they were mostly bored with it and the economy was going from bad to worse and really people were worried about money. The best sellers, such as The Nanny Diaries, which was a bunch of gossip about rich people, just kept selling.
I guess war is just unconfrontable. They sure have to do a lot of propaganda and PR and advertising to get people fired up enough to take an actual interest. At least that is what I have seen from reading history. A war is going on, maybe for years and years, but most people still go to work or farm or whatever and try to stay alive like they always do. If the war actually comes through where they live it is damn inconvenient, but life goes on. Babies get born and people have to eat and they always want some entertainment. Maybe there are scarcities and rationing but people make do and get by. Then when the war is over, the soldiers that didn't die come home and are shellshocked or hardened or Agent Oranged, but things go back to normal after a while and there is even usually some kind of economic boom.
When I was in college in the 60s and then after I dropped out and became a hippy, all I knew was that some guys went to Vietnam, some peoples' relatives got killed (no one I actually knew though) and we just protested and helped guys get out of the draft. Meanwhile we were learning macrobiotics and getting high and listening to our favorite music, while there were guys over there dying. I think we didn't feel we had to care about those guys because we knew you could get out of going if you even tried and we thought guys who went were stupid, straight Hawks and had no respect for them. To this day, I have never known personally anyone who fought in Vietnam. My ex-boyfriend enlisted, which we thought was the stupidest thing of all, because it meant you agreed with the war and believed all that hogwash about fighting communism.
It sounds really cold to me now and I wonder how I became such a cynic. I didn't really know much about history or what was really going on in Vietnam or how we got involved. I just knew that I thought war was wrong, that I was a pacifist and I just was not going to participate. I wonder how many people in the 40s felt that way until they got shamed into or excited into taking part in it. I bet there was heavy pressure to be "patriotic" and if you weren't something was weird about you, especially if you were German or Japanese. I wonder how my parents really felt about it.
My parents grew up with parents who had lived through World War I, either safely from here or who had friends and relatives who fought or who fought themselves. My parents were born just as that war ended and by the time they were young man and woman, there was another world war. And I was born just after that one was over. But really it wasn't talked about, it wasn't stressed. It was the space race and learning science to keep up with the Russians and Eisenhower and peace and prosperity; subdivisions and cars and money and getting ahead and cocktail parties. Mostly in my family it was church and giving money to the church and to unfortunate orphans and being good and staying away from disreputable people and being safe.
Maybe it worked. When I was in my 20s there was Vietnam and when I was in my 40s there was Desert Storm and now there is the "war on terror", but no more world wars, at least not yet. Maybe that atom bomb really did scare people enough. Now war is more localized and more covert and done with money and marketing and hostile takeovers. Still the poor get squeezed out and the rich stay rich and the middle class does all the work that isn't grunt work and on we go.
Doing the reading, it was at times extremely weird to be so much in another entire decade. The writers and readers of that time were somewhat obsessed with the coming war, the changes in society and how to make sense of it all, while in today's world we take all that for granted. The themes of independence, preserving a way of life that includes liberty and material plenty but at the same time the concern for the elements of society who are poor, suppressed, etc portray the beginnings of socialism and communism as almost acceptable instead of abhorrent ideas. It did not seem as polarized as it does today, but more like an awakening of consciousness to the whole world situation.
Patriotism and nationalism are concepts that have never done much for me. In fact, I feel a distaste for those ideas because they lead to war, to justifications of war and armaments and to an emphasis on the differences between segments of the human race. I suppose any country has its allies and enemies and has to figure out how to work harmoniously with the allies and how to defend itself against its enemies. But somehow between that decade when I was born and my young adult years, it got very muddled. By the time I went to college, I was against war, racism, imperialism, economic oppression. Of course, I don't think I was in the majority of American thought, but I am so curious to discover how I became so anti-establishment, so enamored of the hippy ideals of the brotherhood of man and so dedicated to ending war on this planet. As I continue this reading adventure, I plan to discover the answers to all that.