This is the second installment of the memoir through reading which I am writing. I have been reading books from all the years and decades of my life, beginning with 1940 as the first year of the decade in which I was born. The first installment can be found in the December archives and was posted on December 4, 2005.
I would call 1941 "the end of the innocence" for America. Sure there were earlier hard times in our country, but memories are short and even the Great Depression no longer had such a grip on the people. Those earlier hard times only made Americans unwilling to get involved in more trouble, but trouble was coming and by the end of 1941 it would come to America.
The books I read for this year were not quite as exciting as the ones from 1940. Possibly I was now more used to the era and the style of writing. World War II or any war is the main topic on the list of books, but also included are themes I found in 1940: love, family and religion. Then there were the historical novels, including China, the beginnings of the abolition movement in England, railroad barons, post Civil War New Orleans, etc.
There was no Pulitzer awarded in 1941 and no Nobel Prize for Literature. In film, "Rebecca: won the Academy Award for Best Picture; "Grapes of Wrath" for Best Director (John Ford); "Philadelphia Story" for Best Actor (James Stewart); and "Kitty Foyle" for Best Actress (Ginger Rogers). The pop songs were "Deep in the Heart of Texas", "Chattanooga Choo-Choo", "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."
The United States was watching the war in Europe. While most citizens were hoping we would not get involved, our government and industry were busy getting us involved. There were already price freezes by the Office of Price Administration on steel, rubber was rationed so people were careful about their tires, and US Savings Bonds and stamps were being sold to build up money for financing war. FDR was in his third term and knew we would be in the war eventually. He had to tread lightly because American popular opinion wanted nothing to do with it and it was his job to convince the American people that we had to fight to preserve democracy and all that. For the first time, the Supreme Court set a minimum wage for businesses involved in interstate commerce. Most telling was the beginning of the Manhattan Project, formed to research atomic energy.
My parents became a couple in this year, during the last semester of their senior year in college. They were both in the choir at Valparaiso University in Indiana. That spring, while on tour with the choir in southern Indiana, they fell in love amidst the blossoming fruit trees. My mother graduated with a degree in Music Education, while my father received his in Business Administration.
Mom went home to Port Hope, Michigan and got a job as a telephone operator, while she wrote to schools looking for a teaching position. She was hired that summer to teach music at a public school in Grand Blanc, Michigan. In the fall she found a room there in a house full of teachers and went to work. Grand Blanc was a very small town but the school was filled with kids bussed in from the outlying farming areas. During the war, General Motors built a plant there to make tanks, so many people moved into the area and the schools got over-crowded. As the male teachers began to be drafted, the women had to take up the slack. Before she left to get married, my mom was teaching a health class and an English class in addition to teaching music to first, second and third graders as well as junior high students.
My dad went back to Pittsburgh, PA to live at home while he began his career with United States Steel. He got a job as a bookkeeper in an outlying plant and had to commute. He would be a commuter all his working life, but later would live in the suburbs of New Jersey and commute to New York City. The lovers wrote to each other every day and visited when they could. They would meet in Cleveland, OH, each taking the train, or my dad would come to Michigan. His mother wondered why he didn't stick with his girlfriend from highschool, instead courting some girl from "way out west". My mom's aunt, with whom she had lived since the age of three, had planned that my mom would teach and during her summers they would travel. She was bitter and disappointed that my mom planned to marry and later destroyed all the letters my mom had saved from those courtship days with my dad.
In December, 1941, one of the bachelor teachers at the school in Grand Blanc was trying to convince my mother to go on a date, when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor on the radio. Within days, the United States had declared war on Japan, Germany had declared war on the United States and we were at war.
Germany and England were bombing each other to pieces that year and Germany had begun her foolish invasion of Russia. Most Americans were clueless about the extent of horrors being perpetrated by the Germans (the treatment of the Jews, the concentration camps, the reign of terror by the Nazis) and knew even less about the Japanese. The only book I found about all this in 1941 was The Scum of the Earth, by Arthur Koestler, which was a memoir about prison camps in France where Jews, liberal writers and other undesirables were sent in those early years of the war.
While people in Europe were suffering all the fear and inconvenience and losses of war, Americans were trying to go on with daily life, including my parents. But the writers of the time almost unilaterally were opposed to war and saying so and showing in their writing the stupidity, waste and spurious causes of war. While the governments used propaganda to fire up their citizens against the "enemy", they also participated in getting the wars going for foolish and greedy, imperialistic reasons. It was and always is, the regular common citizens who carry out and pay for the actual fighting and killing, while the industrialists make money hand over fist. There are still three and a half years of war to go.
The writing in these books from the 40s is overall better writing than much of the current literature, but it is dense and thick and after reading it for days and days, I would start to feel stuck in that time and those sensibilities. As I read, I found some of my faith in mankind and many of my viewpoints and philosophical ideas being sorely tested. I wondered if reading fiction might be giving me too big a dose of the hardship, sorrow, suffering and loss in life. I felt like Will Durant, who after studying so much history, lost his faith in the Catholic religion.
I began to see the hugeness of the breadth of experience in life and my little American, Protestant upbringing, my 1950s Pollyanna education (which taught that if you are just good, hardworking, kind, not too much into sex or daring adventures, you will be okay and have a happy life) looked to me like a big denial of what life is actually about. All the emphasis on success, money, getting ahead, which is the mantra of the current society, became thin and unreal.
The lure of safety, security through money and possessions, is a strong, mostly uninspected, deeply inculcated thing in our society. I am not saying that I think we should be existential or hopeless, but where is the adventure in all this? Where is the big game; throwing oneself whole hog into life, live or die in the attempt? I just felt fed up with worrying about what people wear, what cars they drive, how big their houses are, who they know, blah, blah, blah.
Reading takes me into so many ways that people live, so many types of experience. I love that and I see that in every area or culture or type of society, you still find all the levels of mood, attack on life, awareness, ethics. I began to wonder what kind of world it would be if everyone just agreed and was nice and worked together for a common purpose. It sounds good sometimes, sounds really boring at other times. I also became aware of what my parents had experienced in that decade before I was born and why they raised us the way they did. They were born just after the first World War, their parents suffered all the economic uncertainty of the Depression, their young adult years were disrupted by war again and they wished for their children to have a calmer, more secure and better life. Possibly we have had a better life or have we spent all these years in a denial of what life is really all about? In 1941 I was not even born yet and I did not seriously begin to question anything until my late teens. I've got a good twenty years of reading ahead of me but I am already beginning to see the currents and moods that led to that questioning.