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Valentine in Sepia

But what did it feel like to be alive back then, when everything or nothing seemed possible? When you lay awake listening to train whistles that weren’t so much noise as a heightening of your bedroom silence? When you smelled woodsmoke, walking home in the early dark?

—Henry Allen, Introduction, What It Felt Like

If this is an Age of Cyberspace, it’s also, perversely, an Age of Nostalgia, which is very different from, perhaps antithetical to, an age in which the study of history is revered. Nostalgia is of all preoccupations the easiest, for it’s a litany of impressions, not a record of fact; it’s under no obligation to be faithful to reality. The recent millennium was a celebration ad nauseam of the twentieth century but the impulse is always with us: nostalgia is a luxurious emotion we feel, after a certain age, for a mostly imagined and highly edited past that seems to us more innocent, therefore more worthy, than the present. It’s the most bittersweet of emotions, predicated upon loss. In an affluent, rapidly changing society, nostalgia is a highly marketable commodity. It’s a pleasant sort of pseudo-pain, or pang; it feels like yearning, like unrequited puppy love, yet with an undercurrent of rage. (For an overvaluing of the past means a devaluing of the present and, very likely, a resistance to contemplating any future at all.) The Greek root of “nostalgia” suggests “homesickness,” but we can assume that the “home” for which we’re sick has been ameliorated by amnesia, like Polaroids that, as they fade, allow us to appear more attractive than we were.

The first ninety-four pages of this palm-sized book by the Washington Post feature writer and editor Henry Allen, encompassing the first six decades of the twentieth century, are a valentine to this vanished, sepia-tinted world, which can be evoked only through a self-conscious act of memory. In his effort to tell us “what it felt like” Henry Allen recalls a younger, more energetic, more naively optimistic America than the one we currently inhabit, in a tour de force of style reminiscent of such diversely inspired works as E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Paul West’s Portable People, Robert Taylor Jr.’s Loving Belle Starr, those surreal tales of Donald Barthelme that revere, even as they gently mock, bygone days; and Michael Flanagan’s Stations: An Imagined Journey,1 surely one of the most beautiful of idiosyncratic homages to the American past. Especially, one is reminded of the opening of Doctorow’s bravura novel in Allen’s opening chapter, “1900-1910: Good Years”:

Back when health, wealth, and happiness seemed not possible but inevitable, and there were Gibson girls with their confident, lifted hair and their hands in fur muffs…photographs of families lined up from tallest to shortest, like organ pipes…the whistle of stiff bristle brushes on porch floors…wiseacres saying, “Make like a hoop and roll out of here”…grimy children crippled in textile mills.

John D. Rockefeller said, “God gave me my money.”

Things were dark and deliberate. Fathers knew best.

And, in a thumbnail evocation of the archetypal American family:

Someday this son and daughter will remember this house by the smell of hominy, pipe smoke, ill-fitted plumbing, rice pudding, cloves, radiator air, fried donuts….

Outside, in the twilight chill, woodsmoke makes your nostrils flare. The sky over the city horizon twitches with glare from smelters. Down at the station, there’s ice on the tracks. A locomotive, steam punching at the air, gets a little start and then the wheels lose purchase and they spin puffpuffpuff…puff, to silence, and it starts again.

Amid the golden optimism of the “good years” there are glimpses of malaise, however:

A mother weeps in her bedroom for no reason she can tell. The doctor calls it neurasthenia. She feels asphyxiated, as if the whole world smelled like a clothes closet. She drinks another tablespoon of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Tonic, 18 percent alcohol.

A “million new immigrants” a year confound the notion of a homogenous America, provoking anxiety in some quarters:

Outside, an Italian family walks past with eyes you can’t see into, the women shrouded in black, the men carrying knives, or so the son has heard…. Some people don’t like the Italians. They lynched eleven of them one day in New Orleans. But who was it invented the radio? Marconi! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Henry Allen quotes Virginia Woolf’s much-quoted remark, “On or about December, 1910, human character changed,” and provides tongue-in-cheek photographic proof that, indeed, this may have been so. After 1910, men shave off their moustaches, cock their straw hats, and look “a little weasely, like salesmen”; women jettison corsets, raise their hemlines, and face the camera with “amused wiseguy wariness.” Virtually overnight we’re careening toward the eroticized present: “The face of sublimity starts to become the face of sexuality.”

It’s a pity that Henry Allen doesn’t include a bibliography, for we can assume he had a great time, at least in researching these early decades, skimming or flipping through those seductive books we all have on our shelves, many of them oversized, bought in secondhand shops, with such generic titles as The American Past, A Pictorial History of America, Yesterdays, A Day in the Life of America.

He has interlarded into his text brief, usually striking, but unfortunately unfootnoted quotes by such observers of the American scene as Henry James, President Woodrow Wilson,2 Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Henry “Gatling Gun” Fogleman, Max Eastman (“boy-faced editor of The Masses“), and Davy Jones (outfielder for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1900s). There are virtually no allusions to or evocations of the work of those serious creative artists, painters, photographers, writers, poets, playwrights, composers, et al. who have many times told us “what it felt like” to live in America in these early decades of the twentieth century. (F. Scott Fitzgerald is inevitably, if briefly, quoted; but what of Edith Wharton, Henry Adams, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Clifford Odets, Ernest Hemingway, Anzia Ye-zierska, Henry Roth, William Carlos Williams, H.L. Mencken, Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, John Jay Chapman, James Agee, Zora Neale Hurston, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Eudora Welty…?) Since Allen’s hope is to evoke for his readers “what it was like in the olden days,” it seems disingenuous of him not to acknowledge that rich sources for such knowledge already exist in plenitude.

At its most zestful What It Felt Like is a kind of prose cartoon, quirkily beguiling, imaginative, often mordantly funny; it moves with the careless ease of a skipping stone skimming the surface of its gnarly subject. Allen’s minuscule vignettes derive almost exclusively from media archives, not from directly observed or recalled life. Impossible to be original with such material, except in its style of presentation:

Pack of Pall Malls in my pocket, Vitalis on my hair, penny loafers, sport coat with the shirt collar spread over it so I’m all shoulders and shoes walking into the drugstore. Whistling “Fools Rush In” with all the trills.

As if a deranged Norman Rockwell were illustrating the war effort:

Cordley Electric drinking fountains have gone to sea!

Mogul Metallizing Gives Wings to Paratroopers!

Joe’s the boy for WORK. And till we measure the Axis partners for some snug wood vests, he’ll have little time for play. So Joe keeps his morale hitched high with long-wearing clothes…

Scratch One Zero! Wherever Navy buzzard-busters swing into action, you’ll probably find Synthane!

Allen’s technique works best when his subject matter verges upon the surreal. It isn’t equipped to suggest what we might call the dignity of “real” history:

After 1942 and the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, you know we’re going to win, it’s just a job now…North Africa, moving up Italy…you hear about the zoot-suit riots in Los Angeles, GIs beating up the Mexicans…same stuff in World War I, race riots, people go crazy during wars…you’re writing to a girl, she sends you her picture but then she stops writing…

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occupies a brief paragraph; the Holocaust is passed over in a cinematic blur of provincial sentiment:

Bright wild air of back-home America: traffic jams, factory whistles, and the colors—wallpaper, curtains, magazine stands, Texaco signs—the smell of sunlit car upholstery, your girlfriend’s hair… the future sparkles in front of you like a weekend ocean. Everything is possible.

The funniest chapter is “1950-1960: The Split-Level Years,” a rollercoaster of one-liners, bizarre juxtapositions, and absurdist exchanges. Squarely at mid-century, this deadpan decade has been so maligned, so anatomized and satirized, perhaps most ambitiously and brilliantly in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning,3 that one wouldn’t think more comedy could be gleaned from it, but Henry Allen caroms through his clichéd material with panache. “There’s a cartoon fullness to things,” the affable narrator observes:

Smell it, smell it, smell the sour cities you leave behind in bosomy cars that smell of dusty sunlight and thump over Eisenhower’s concrete interstate highways whose joints ooze tar that smells like industrial licorice till you arrive in a suburb smelling of insecticide and freshly cut grass outside identical houses full of the scents of postwar America: baked air hovering over the TV set; the mucilage on stickers for your art-appreciation course—Mona Lisa, American Gothic; the cozy stink of cigarette smoke freshened by Air-Wick deodorizer amid sweet pine paneling whose knots watch over you like the loving eyes of Disney forest creatures.

Granted, there’s a hydrogen bomb “erupting from the South Pacific like a cancerous jellyfish the size of God,” and the evil Senator Joseph McCarthy has strewn the land with damaged lives: still, we’ve developed such Fifties artifacts as the Princess phone, 3-D movies, boomerang-shaped coffee tables, tract housing, Ozzie and Harriet, bomb shelters stocked with Franco-American canned spaghetti and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. The impulse to enshrine the past collides with the wicked impulse to demolish it:

Children, your father’s home!” Mom yells.

A father’s Florsheim Imperials are heard. A Dobbs centerdent fedora is seen, with a jaunty trout-fly on the grosgrain band. Dad exudes the tired authority of cigarette smoke and Arid underarm deodorant cream.

His knuckles whiten on a Christmas-present attaché case.

Can’t you kids get up off your duffs and do something instead of sitting there watching…”

Hey, Dad’s home.”

Howdy Doody, a little-children’s show?”

There’s nothing else on, Dad.”

With the Sixties, however, Henry Allen’s comic valentine to America becomes, with jarring abruptness, a jeremiad. Where the early chapters are a delight to read, the concluding chapters (“1960-1970: Everything Possible, Nothing Real,” “1970-1980: Heavy,” “1989-1990: Morning Again,” “1990-2000: Whatever”) are something of a chore, even for readers who may share the author’s dismay at the anesthetized mass-market culture of the fin de siècle, in which irony is “too much work.” The reverse of nostalgia isn’t clear-minded realism but cynicism; where nostalgia is saccharine, cynicism is sour. And where cynicism isn’t very original, or very convincingly argued, the sourness is predominant.

Allen’s views of the Sixties are especially lacking in inspiration. A true jeremiad implies blighted idealism, but there appears to be none here:

I try to tell people about the sixties, but my memory is like a book that got burned, and what’s left is charred ovals of pages, and they’re out of order.

No one could extrapolate from “1960-1970: Everything Possible, Nothing Real” any sense of a decade of extraordinary urgency, a profound and violent division between generations, social classes, political passions. Even as an expression of disillusionment, these comments lack credibility: “Even in the middle of the fun or the craziness, you kept feeling like a by-product for which there was no product, like the side effect of a drug somebody else had taken….” Set beside the subtly nuanced prose of such observers of the social scene as Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Robert Stone, Tim O’Brien, Tom Wolfe, and numerous others, Henry Allen’s examination of the decade is sketchy and tone-deaf. References to the Vietnam War are flippant; response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy is bemused and indifferent (“…everybody’s so worked up about it, I wondered if I missed something”)—hardly an apt representation of “what it felt like” to have lived through this tumultuous decade. As if the author were flipping impatiently through an album, the Sixties are summed up: “There was the Cuban missile crisis, and people kept getting assassinated: Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., civil-rights workers. But those things seemed like mere accidents at first.” On page 108, Allen suddenly discovers the racial division in America, yet with insulting glibness:

You just may have believed there was a glamour to be found in the company of the beautiful young gunmen known as the Black Panthers. And the long-lost continent of Africa arose as homeland and Eden. And either you’d read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth or you hadn’t—it was a consciousness thing.

Here and elsewhere there is the suggestion that What It Felt Like is aimed for an audience exclusively Caucasian and male, middle-aged or older, privileged, politically conservative, and indifferent to, if not amused by, the mere possibility of being made conscious of the plight of the “wretched of the earth.”

As Allen’s vision of America darkens, his prose often turns vapid. This is Tom Wolfe lacking in flamboyance, pumped-up energy, and bravado:

It, like, the seventies.

It’s like…what…like soggy, like a sinus condition…

Lotta drugs, lotta sex, lotta therapy, hugging and polyester clothing with a stiff, sticky feeling…

Allen’s suggestion that the large public events of the Seventies (Watergate, the evacuation of Saigon, the Iran hostage crisis) were simply boring is patently false, except if one has created a moronic American citizenry for the purposes of satire: “It’s like a TV show you’ve never seen before but it feels like a rerun, something wrong with the laugh track.” Clichés are ticked off like rare pearls: “Anybody who’s anybody is a victim now”—“Divorce becomes just another rite of passage on the road to freedom”—“Everything is an imitation of itself, every sideburn, shag rug, Buick LeSabre, giraffe-pattern throw pillow.” The inevitable expert on the narcissism of others, Christopher Lasch, is quoted:

In a dying culture, narcissism appears to embody—in the guise of personal “growth” and “awareness”—the highest attainment of spiritual enlightenment. The custodians of culture hope, at bottom, merely to survive its collapse.

(A narcissist can be defined as one who doesn’t think as much of us as we’d wish him to; or one whose values differ from our own.)

Allen’s concluding chapter, “1990- 2000: Whatever,” is, as its title suggests, a bleak exercise, lacking in originality and verve. Doubtful propositions are offered as homespun wisdom: “We hadn’t lost our vitality as much as we’d conquered reality.” Sentimentality is offered as elegiac insight: “We no longer had to rely on ordinary joys: the darkness of a June woods, the giddiness of a baby. Who had time for the idiot happenstance of reality? The age of epiphany was over. The age of downloading was here.”

The nostalgic impulse is obviously inborn in our species. In times of cultural uncertainty, and in persons no longer young, it exerts a curious, seductive force. Obviously, the nostalgist yearns for his own lost youth, or a time predating that youth. He can’t bear to think that time will plow him under; that the eros of nostalgia will attach itself to an epoch in which he feels displaced. Millennia ago, dyspeptic elders were grumbling about the erosion of values and the decline of culture, assuming that the universe was wearing down because they were wearing down; at the very start of Western literary tradition, in the sixth century BC, the poet Hesiod wrote of the four ages of man, descending from an age of gold to an age of lead. So too in the more modest pages of What It Felt Like:

Who could imagine being nostalgic for the nineties?

A yearning for the past is best provoked by smell, and by the nineties, we’d eradicated smells. People, animals, industries, seasons, love, and death smelled of nothing at all except deodorant: no burning leaves, sweat, bacon and eggs…, mothballs in summer attics, cigar smoke in fur coats, cabbage hallways in apartment houses, all of it whisked away by chemicals, environmental-protection laws, snobbery, range hoods, air conditioners, and washing as a nearly religious obsession.

All smells eradicated? Clearly, the nostalgist hasn’t traveled the northern stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike lately.

  1. 1

    Stations: An Imagined Journey: Story & Paintings, by Michael Flanagan (Pantheon, 1994), purports to be an “album of lost photographs” of the stops along two antiquated railroad lines winding through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The text is romantic and mysterious, tracing the progress of a love affair, but it’s the paintings that are extraordinary, based upon old photographs of small-town America in the age of the steam locomotive. The premise of Stations, as of the Art of Nostalgia generally, is, in Flanagan’s words, “Places are the only thing you can trust.”

  2. 2

    The unattributed quote from Wilson is striking, but one might question its authenticity:

    I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.

  3. 3

    Grove, 1998.

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