Tuesday, December 15, 2009

One Hundred Years Ago. . .

. . .your great grandparents were in their prime (do you know who their parents were? and isn't it bone-chilling to realize you may not, and that your own full, passionate life may be subject to the same oblivion but a hundred years hence?).

Please read on, fellow mortal.

Your great grandparents, probably without understanding exactly why, were standing at the portals of a momentous period we have come to call "The American Century". That century has come to an end. The 21st got started with awful news from Dade County and then worse news from the corner of Liberty and Church in Lower Manhattan, followed by even worse news a couple of blocks south at the corner of Wall and Broad just across from where a certain American General was sworn in as the nation's first Commander in Chief. Obama may be President today, but he's inherited a deflated-balloon of a nation hissing out its remaining air in a way that sounds an awful lot like the mindless drone of tea-baggers and other ill-tempered opponents to common-sense.

But hope cannot be lost if we look back on what was going on a hundred years ago, when the prospects for the nation loomed great, but when the United States, culturally at least, was unsound and notably laggard--perhaps much as it is today.

Here are a few examples of what made the papers (ref: "America's Taste 1859 -1959, NYT Books):

1908: New York Camera Club Ousts Alfred Steiglitz
They accused him of malfeasance but he said the reason was they just objected to his realism. They called him and his followers "the Mop and Pail crew", mocking their penchant for photographing the city's streets and its people. For quite some time, cubism's forward-looking works on canvas could be seen only at Steiglitz' New York Studio. Incidentally, Picasso's earth-shaking "Les Desmoiselles D'Avignon" with its distorted monstrous nude ladies with African masks was revealed to a generally horrified public in 1906.

1906: Sinclair Lewis' "The Jungle" is panned by the critics but becomes a best-seller anyway.
"I aimed for America's heart and hit it in the stomach" said Lewis. For those who don't know, "The Jungle" is a novel about labor injustice and woefully poor hygiene in the meatpacking industry. Apparently the latter descriptions were so disgusting that the public grew outraged and soon insisted upon, and got, the US government to inspect food processing and keep it at least effectively clean enough not to sicken any noticeable percentage of those who partook. Lewis had in addition hoped to spur similar outrage at the labor malfeasance thereat, but as any Mexican working in a chicken-parts factory knows, this part of the outrage never became as popular with a feasting American public.

1903: Carrie A. Nation is jailed.
Her axe-wielding quote: "You have taken me in as a lamb but I shall come out as a lion". And thus was born the movement that would eventually become an ignominious chapter in our history known as Prohibition; and concomitantly we'd see the rise of a ruling class of Gangsters in America. What Carrie couldn't understand was that you can't stop people from ingesting what they want (see above) no matter what method with which you regale them or punish them. Carrie A. Nation, an Oklahoma girl, had in her later years decided, it seems, that Demon Alcohol was the ruin of lives and families and that alcohol-bars must be cut up with axes. She may have had a point. But it is a little known fact that she was equally and as vociferously against "fraternal orders" such as the Masons, the Odd-Fellows, and probably, if they had existed, Ralph Kramden's Raccoon Club. One imagines these groups were far more influential then than now--or perhaps we just don't realize what they are up to these days (Skull and Bones anyone?). I know I haven't a clue. Having discovered this latter nugget of information, I must admit, is forcing me to give old Carrie a second look.

Finally, and this is about inflation:

1909: Holbein Portrait sells for $400,000--a scandalous sum for a painting at the time.
Now of course we would be well into the multi-millions for same. Fifty million? Maybe. But $400,000! Today you might get a weatherbeaten Manhattan co-op with a view of the air shaft for that much, provided you could convince the bank you really didn't need the money in which case they would guardedly lend it to you (still owing all that TARP money to the government).

So, while we might still may be driving the bus in the ditch, we can safely consider ourselves well ahead of our great grandparents in some ways. For instance, there is no chance they carried around supercomputers in their pockets. Nor would they have been lucky enough to be able to argue about universal health care (in an age when "dropsy" was a significant ailment).

In any case, why is everyone so excited about any of these? A hundred years from now it will all seem so quaint.