I like to read period literature. –Not the stuff that gets anthologized and reprinted from age to age. That stuff is mostly whatever the anthologists think is least likely to offend modern sensibilities. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the attitudes of ordinary people of the time. I like to read the ephemera. Forgettable novels and cheesy magazine articles are full of insights into what people like me, people who were not necessarily great and lucid thinkers, once really believed.
A lot of times I find things in period writing that I don’t like very much. Even after reading a lot of it, the intolerant religiosity of the western world in the nineteenth century sometimes still shocks me. Writers whose portraits depict sweetly-smiling old ladies in mourning bonnets have no trouble consigning most of humankind to eternal damnation for the sin of not being the right sort of Christian.
Sort of reminds me of something—I can’t think what—that I read in the papers just recently…
Sometimes I find funny things. I own at least two hundred articles and pamphlets, spanning two hundred years, outlining (in the blackest terms imaginable) what the authors imagine will be the dire and inevitable consequence to women of (among many, many other things) speaking in church or in public; taking payment for nursing the sick; becoming schoolteachers; using a telephone or riding a bicycle; voting; shortening their skirts or their hair; or serving in the military as (underpaid) “auxiliaries.”
The hilarious thing is that—in contrast to the poor record of futurists in general—the writers of these articles were absolutely correct in almost everything they prophesied! Talkative, employed, short-haired, trousered women really didn’t continue to find their ultimate fulfillment in home, family, and a position of perpetual dependency. (Men still find women attractive, though. The extinction of the race due to the lack of the motivation a delicate silk gown provides to men to perform their generative duties is one prediction that has definitely not come true. –Also, nobody foresaw the tattoos. Ever.)
And sometimes in ephemera, I find things that make me nostalgic, and kind of sad.
This weekend I was reading a Nero Wolfe mystery that came out in 1965. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed in an effort to end attempts to deny African-Americans their legitimate rights and responsibilities as Americans. Though that Act isn’t specifically mentioned in the story, the consciousness of it pervades the book.
The plot is a very common one: A woman is found murdered, and her fiancé is suspected of the crime. The complication, the topical detail that makes Nero Wolfe agree to take the case, is that the woman is white; and the fiancé, African-American. The father of the fiancé, in fact, admiringly quotes a speech Nero Wolfe once gave to a group of African-American men—meant to be stirring, but to modern ears, bombastic and more than a little condescending—urging them to be better and more just than their oppressors. With hindsight, I can just imagine how such a speech would really have been received.
The rest of the story is formulaic. (Or at least, it is now. It might have seemed more original at the time.) Racist attitudes are openly expressed by the ignorant and evil; while the educated and/or well-meaning say things like, “When I consider myself superior to anyone, as I frequently do, I need a better reason than his skin.” The problems of the two families, white and black, exactly mirror one another; as do, apparently, their life experiences. The accused’s father is a professor of anthropology. If he encountered any racist barriers in his rise to that eminence—and modern readers know that he did—it isn’t mentioned. Once certain legal disabilities have been done away with, the book implies, the problem of racism in America will be solved, because black Americans will quickly become identical with the white mainstream American “us”.
Back when the book was written, I believed that, too. I’m embarrassed to remember that now.
It’s been fifty years, and we’re still regrettably racist in this country. But we have made some progress, I think. Few of us believe anymore that there’s a single “us” for all the “theys” to turn into, for one thing. That was an important insight. America has been a multicultural society from the first, and success for a multicultural society doesn’t lie in somehow ceasing to be multicultural. Nero Wolfe was good at solving crimes, and I envy his success with orchids (a pink Vanda!)—but in some ways, he was also just so awfully naïve.
I learn a lot of good lessons from reading ephemeral writings, such as that the longer-standing the injustice, the more intractable and elusive the remedy for it; that the degree of hysteria a societal change engenders isn’t necessarily proportional to the issue’s actual importance (oceans of ink were once expended in a futile effort to persuade men not to bring down Western Civilization by adopting the newfangled style of buttoning their trousers at the front, rather than at the side); and that solutions to one problem usually create a bunch of new problems.
And now, thanks to a Nero Wolfe novel, I also know to write only fantasy, or something set in the distant past. Sure, topical is popular; topical is commercial—but unless you possess a crystal ball (I do not), at every stroke of the pen you risk—fifty years on—looking like a fool.