I still have the tattered Golden Book of Nursery Tales (1948) and Mother Goose Book of Nursery Rhymes (1953) presented to me at birth. At a time in my life when preserving the past evidently mattered less to me, I removed the covers and added my own crayon and pen illustrations to those of Tibor Gergely, whose images are for me the definitive Mama Bear and Papa Bear, City Mouse and Country Mouse, Three Little Pigs and Big Bad Wolf. After taking my mother’s 1952 Remington typewriter to college in
Tucson, I have lugged its 31-pound bulk through several more significant moves including the transcontinental one from Arizona to North Carolina. I cling to the few remaining pieces of silver-plate flatware my ex-mother-in-law left to me because it was the same pattern I grew up with. I have to assume that the 1938 Oneida Prestige, Grenoble pattern, must have been an easily affordable set for copper miners and handymen who had survived the Depression to buy for their baby-boom families, probably on some sort of weekly door-to-door payment plan. Yes, I cherish these artifacts of the mid-20th century because they are the mementos of my young and hopeful life. But I also love them simply because they are old.
Revealing a similar passion for the past, my favorite photographic expeditions have been to the rural garden cemeteries that flourished in the United States a century earlier. As I wrote previously,
I find solace and inspiration in the scriptures, the poetry, and even the kitsch with which people adorn the resting places of their loved ones. I find tragedy in the rows of graves too small, with dates too close together, all bearing the same family name. I remember hope and joy when I fleetingly hear the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
The quintessence of my experience in old cemeteries, though, is that they enable me to feel a connection with the past. The lichen-covered hands of a praying stone cherub, an almost-obliterated date of birth more than 300 years ago, the unabashed melancholy of weeping angels draped over coffins: I experience a frisson of recognition when I see–and especially touch–these relics of long-ago people who become in the instant timeless.
Thus, it has been no surprise to me that an important corollary of my current project commemorating the centenary of World War I has been my joy in the things themselves that I have seen and read and touched. I have rediscovered old literary companions in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (both published in 1929). Even better, I have discovered a whole new collection of novels that came directly out of the Great War: Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (France, 1916), The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (England, 1918), Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès (France, 1919), Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (England, 1924-1928), Fear by Gabriel Chevallier (France, 1930), and Her Privates We (England, 1930). I have seen cinematic depictions of the war that maintain their dark power all these decades later: All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), Wooden Crosses (Raymond Bernard, 1932), Broken Lullaby (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932), and The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937).
Most delicious of all, though, I have acquired, purely at random, one book and several pieces of ephemera dating from the time of the war itself. These items (with one notable exception) were held and touched and read by people who witnessed first- or second-hand the horrors of the war that became a watershed moment in the history of Western civilization. E. Barker begins his 1915 pamphlet “Great Britain’s Reasons for Going to War,” as follows: “At the present moment, the two Germanic powers–Germany and Austria–and engaged with a war with two Romance powers in the West, and with three Slavonic powers in the East.” In his peroration, Barker justifies England’s decision to oppose the Germanic powers because they have “offended against the Right.” Need I say more? Oh, but there’s much more.
I got three paper-bound issues of a magazine entitled The Great War: The Standard History of the World-Wide Conflict, edited by H. W. Wilson; this weekly blow-by-blow account of the war as it happened was later collected into a thirteen-volume book collection. Volume VII, Part 119 (week ending November 25, 1916), priced at sixpence, has a tellingly different subtitle from the final set: The Standard History of the All-Europe Conflict; it comprises a history of Rumania’s war efforts to that date. Volume X, Part 173 (w/e December 8, 1917) contains an article about America’s entry into the war entitled “Promptitude versus Dalliance.” Volume XI, Part 209 (w/e August 17, 1918) features on its cover a drawing captioned “America’s Charge to the Battle-Cry of ‘Lusitania!'”
Gas Attack was the official publication of New York’s 27th Infantry Division at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina. Vol. 1, No, 21 (April 13, 1918) is chock-full of unit news, jokes, and advertisements for first aid kits and fountain pens, safety razors and puttees; a “Special Box of ‘Smokes'” for $1 and Wrigley’s Spearmint, Doublemint, and Juicy Fruit, good for dry throats and husky voices. I also obtained a copy of The War in Pictures published by Leslie’s weekly newspaper on August 16, 1917. Printed on the front cover is the price, 10 cents, and affixed thereon is an address label: H. J. Palmer, 2726 E. 2nd St., Sioux City, Iowa. The first page sets the tone with two photos entitled “The Complex and Terrible Phase” and “The Simple and Constructive Side.” The upper photo of a “mighty dreadnought . . . one vast and interlocking mechanism geared to one purpose–destruction” sits in counterpoise to the lower, two peasant women in a field, one plowing, one nursing her infant child. Photos of the men and the machines of war “over there” accompany articles about news on the home front, people in the limelight, soldiers training for war, and “Peace Talk in the Air.” The back cover sports a dapper young gentleman smoking a Chesterfield cigarette: “Mild? Sure! Yet they ‘Satisfy.’ 20 for 10¢.” Both these American publications encourage their readers with brief nots on the cover to place a one-cent stamp on the magazine and deliver to a postal employee, who will ensure that it is “placed in the hands of our soldiers or sailors at the front.”
These pages I hold in my hands were held in other hands a century ago. These photographs I find moving were wept over by mothers and sweethearts. These paragraphs I read were read by other, wiser eyes. Ernest Hemingway even described the book I am currently reading as “the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read. I read it over every year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself or anyone else about them.” Ernest Hemingway read the very book I am reading. And he pronounced it fine and noble.
My other lucky find is the first Swiss edition of Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu (Journal d’une Escouade), printed in 1917 and seemingly never opened for the 100 intervening years. The gilded brown leather cover is unscarred; the pages are untouched; the yellow ribbon to mark the reader’s place remains between pages 278 and 279 and folded up at the bottom between pages 316 and 317. This book has lain unblemished for exactly a century, waiting for me to read, should my French ever become so skilled:
Tant que sur les bancs de l’école on ressassera aux bambins la gloire de Napoleon, cet avorton qui asait dire pouvoir s’offrir le luxe de dépenser trente mille hommes par mois, . . . un gran livre, juste et vrai, tel que Le Feu, sera inutile.
As long as we rehash to the children on the school benches the glory of Napoleon, that runt supposedly able to afford the luxury of expending 30,000 men per month, . . . a great book, just and true, such as Under Fire, will be useless.
These physical objects from the past nourish me and fill me with joy; they touch me and teach me.
On August 15 of this year, I heard an unsettling piece on public radio’s Marketplace. Allison Lee reported on “the one vintage thing that doesn’t appeal to millennials: furniture.” She found that 20- to 36-year-olds “may not have inherited a love of antiques”; David Lackey, an appraiser for PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” told her, “They don’t want silver, china, [or] crystal.” Millennial entrepreneur Rachel Hernandez articulated the general impression: “Spending a couple hundred on something that my grandma has doesn’t work. It’s not ‘where it’s at.'” An earlier article in The Washington Post (March 27, 2015) pointed to a similar trend, finding that millennials “are not so interested in the lifestyle trappings or nostalgic memorabilia they were so lovingly raised with.” They don’t want vintage silver, family photo albums, baby shoes, or heirloom quilts; they don’t even want memorabilia from their own childhoods. Josh Phillips, a Washington-area restaurateur, summed it up: “If I can’t store my memories of something in a computer, I’m probably not going to keep them around.”
Yesterday, I hosted a guest lecturer from the history faculty, who provided my students with an overview of World War I before they start writing papers about shell shock and mustard gas. No one could answer his question about who was President during the war, and one guessed that Viet Nam was one of the combatants. Only one in another class of 24 first-semester composition students could identify Frederick Douglass. But they–or at least their street-savvy peers three counties up the road–are willing to tear down a statue honoring Confederate soldiers because, in the words of Takiya Fatima Thompson, who did the statue toppling:
“To the boys who wore the grey.” And if we understand history, we know that those boys who wore gray, today they wear blue and they wear sheets over their heads and they beat up black people and they beat up Latinx people, and they beat up queer people and that is the agenda. . . . I’m tired of white supremacy keeping its foot on my neck and the necks of people who look like me. That statue glorifies the conditions that oppressed people live in, and it had to go.
Surely, even the most egalitarian among us must acknowledge that this woman understands nothing about history. Nor will she ever. She and an alarming contingent of her generation have not only discarded their baby shoes and photographs of their grandfathers. They have disavowed all responsibility to the past in their zeal to obliterate discomfiting facts. They have abdicated clarity of language in favor of sloganeering about Latinx and microaggressions and hate speech. They believe that iPhone photographs will bear all the witness they need. And in the process of changing school names and tearing down statues, they are destroying the last extant reminders of the past societal sins against which they raise their increasingly ludicrous–but no less dangerous–fists in protest.