The Past looking at the Past

I found among my father’s effects a thin, musty hardcover volume called The History of Western Culture, a collection of Life Magazine articles that ran between March 3, 1947, and Nov. 22, 1948. Each one is far grander than a typical Life article of that time. It begins with a 14-page essay of text and pictures about the Renaissance, and ends with a focus on the revolutionary year of 1848. Meanwhile, I am currently reading a history of the American West by Bernard DeVoto called The Year of Decision: 1846, published in 1942, the first year of America’s gung-ho involvement in World War II. In these two books, you can see America in the 1940s looking back on the 1840s in a particular way that is worth remembering, or recovering. The 1840s and the 1940s were intensifiers of history, each a giant lens that focused literary and political sunlight that had been falling around the world, or at least in the Western world, for decades if not centuries. To line up these two lenses produces a very bright illumination.

One thing I recognize in The History of Western Culture, especially, is the enthusiasm my father had for this grand-narrative of western history. Of course he loved this Life magazine series, published between his graduation from college and his wedding. Unlike stuffy academic histories, it was what first-rate journalism could do with history for the general reader. (I sense behind the series, which bears no bylines or editorial names, the nationalistic optimism of Henry Luce and a distant cousin of Daddy’s, Life editor John Shaw Billings.) “I write for the nonexistent person called the general reader,” DeVoto says in his Preface.

Another revelation in these books, for me, is the powerful confluence of forces, of complicated urges for a new world of human possibilities, in the 1840s. Of course these urges carried with them the moral and ecological evils we now are (rightly) trying to sort out. Manifest Destiny, New England utopianism, Thoreau and Bancroft, the Mormon trek and President Polk’s gobbling up of Mexican territories, California and Oregon lands. And in Europe, in 1848, revolution, restoration, nationalism, liberalism. These day, it’s hard to appreciate these ferments and the epic grandeur of it all. But in the 1940s, it was intellectually solid to see all this with some amazement, along with irony and paradox.

This copy used to have a dust jacket. We kept a bunny that nibbled on poetry books, mostly, but seemed to like this one too.

One passage of the Life text on 1848 recovers the beauty of the word “liberalism” in its original sense. This understanding could be something that principled liberals and principled conservatives (the few that remain in either camp) might consider, if the Biden era is going to be one of pragmatic compromise and problem-solving.

Liberalism. “A term which has been muddied in the 20th Century’s many intellectual gutters was still a definite philosophy in 1848. It was a view of life which, in politics, emphasized the individual’s freedom from arbitrary rule. It saw the state, checked by parliaments and constitutions, as a ‘passive policeman’ whose main duty it was to keep order and protect property. Economically liberalism fought for freedom of trade, contract and enterprise; fought the aristocracy’s ancient privileges as well as tariffs and guilds. Intellectually it believed in progress through science and technology. It was the philosophy of the middle class, which had fought to establish it ever since the twilight of the Middle Ages.”

Ok, maybe that’s a suspiciously post-war, American Century sort of view of the age of Dickens and Louis Napoleon. But add in “a free and responsible press” (the name of a commission Luce launched and sponsored in 1942), and it comes close to why the label “liberal” is as good as it gets in politics, for all Newt Gingrich’s cynical campaign that made it a dirty word.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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