I’ve just finished reading Jane Smiley’s masterful 2010 novel, Private Life. It is the story of an ordinary Missouri woman’s life that begins with her first memory in 1883 and ends on the California coast in 1942.
I was particularly interested in it because it encompassed the America my grandparents grew up in, in Kansas, Minnesota and Colorado, a period of time I’ve always wanted to know more about. Novels can provide what history books leave out, the “felt experience” of a time, the customs and mores and textures of a life now gone, yet one that is not really so far from us.
One of the impressions I came away with was how different our expectations of life have become. For most of us born after World War II, we expect long, relatively healthy, relatively prosperous lives as our birthright. Illness and death are not constant companions, but visiting guests with whom we feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Yet the first memory Margaret, the book’s protagonist, has is of a public hanging, quickly followed by the deaths of two brothers and the suicide of her father. The measles wipe out a fair number of people in the town, taking a sibling here, a parent there, and yet these are treated as unremarkable.
We may look back at the early twentieth century as a golden time of stability, when families stayed together, and communities were more cohesive. It is true that in the world the book conjures, communities seem strongly knit, with unquestioned roles for men and women, and an assumption of civic responsibility.
It is without question that Margaret as a young spinster tends to the sick and elderly, and later spends her time knitting necessaries or making bandages for soldiers oversees. There was no concept of private space, private time. One had a role in the community that was unquestioned, and the utmost value of a person was to fulfill that role.
Marriages are depicted as social contracts, first and foremost, with very little expectation of what we would consider happiness. If you found happiness, all well and good, but a woman married for security and position, a man for someone to rear children and care for the household. Life was precarious and short, and if you didn’t find fulfillment at home, there was always bridge, or horse racing.
I was struck by how quickly wars and disasters followed one on the heels of the other. At the beginning of the book, young Margaret goes to a parade for Civil War vets. Not long after, World War I plucks all the young men from the town.
She marries and lives on a Naval base outside San Francisco, and witnesses the earthquake and fire that destroyed the city in 1905, the Spanish flu, the Depression, World War II. All of these things are experienced as communal, not private, woes. The novel depicts a world in which feelings are kept to oneself, where there are few sanctioned ways to express them.
Indeed, Margaret has no vocabulary for her own subjectivity. She has little idea of what sex is, and gets wildly conflicting reports as to its desirability from her sisters when she weds. When she loses her only baby shortly after its birth, she has no way to express her sorrow. The stoicism of the time required her to keep it to herself. There was no support group, no acknowledgement of her loss. She had to keep that sorrow hugged close to her heart. What happened to her was unremarkable at the time; it happened to many women, often. Hers was just the ordinary sorrow of life.
The words and concepts which we take for granted, such as “personal fulfillment,” “happiness,” “finding your authentic path,” would have no place in her world. Now, we feel and express all over the place. We leave no emotive stone unturned. We fret constantly about our state of fulfillment, and then we post our unedited thoughts on the web for all the world to see. We have iPods, iPhones, iLives.
People in their twenties, who have done nothing more than live, write their memoirs. “I” am the measure of all things—my thoughts, my tastes, my opinions. Humility is a dirty word. Social Darwinism reigns: the race goes to the swift, and get out of my way.
I wouldn’t want to go back to my grandparents’ world, even if I could. I am glad I can express my feelings, that I have a sense of myself as a person with needs and rights.
However, I wonder sometimes if the cult of narcissism that seems rampant at the moment is just as hard on people in some ways as stoicism was in its day. Young people, in particular, feel the need to be a rock star at all times. It is exhausting. There is little time for keeping things to oneself long enough for “emotions to thicken,” as Elizabeth Bowen once wrote. There is such pressure to be remarkable.
As we face staggering unemployment, a healthcare crisis, a protracted war, a crumbling infrastructure and an unstable world economy, having a greater sense of community, of all being in the same boat, seems to me to be a good thing. A little “we” injected into the “I.”
Perhaps some of the attitudes of our grandparents might be reconsidered—the knowledge that life is hard and that nothing is guaranteed, the fortitude to work for the common good, and the ability to make our needs secondary at times. Who knows, it might even make us happier.