You can only know so much about history. Life is short, and in truth one can never have total knowledge and understanding even of the periods we focus in upon most obsessively.
And in my life, I’ve bounced around from one intense interest to another. When I was a kid, it was the Second World War. It was the thing that loomed over the world in which I grew up, and made that world I knew seem uninteresting in comparison. After I started taking Latin in high school, I got into ancient Rome — or at least, the end of the republic and the first few emperors. When I was in college, I was riveted by the early days of our own republic — not so much the Revolution, but what came after: The Constitutional Convention, leading through the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Quincy Adams (before the standard dropped so sharply with Old Hickory). I used to go around saying I would love to go back and live in that time of brilliant ideas, if only they’d had more indoor plumbing — yes, an undergraduate’s notion of wit.
This is a period I had mostly ignored in the past — it was after The Recent Unpleasantness, and before the more relatable politics of the 20th, both of which had always seemed more interesting. I just saw it as a time of boring prosperity in the North, and postwar trauma in the South (the rise and fall of Reconstruction, Tillmanism, rich Yankees coming down and buying up plantations as hunting estates, etc.). It was always kind of a blur.
But lately, over the last year or so, I’ve found myself drawn back to it over and over. My recent reading has included:
- Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. My elder son gave me this last year — he had assigned himself the task of going through one book about each president in our history, in chronological order, and this had been his favorite. It was about James Garfield, about whom I knew pretty much nothing, which was shameful on my part. It painted a picture of an extraordinary man who was like a dream POTUS — a brilliant self-made scholar and war hero who turned to politics. When he showed up at the Republican national convention to nominate another man in 1880, he ended up being nominated himself, unanimously, but against his own wishes. He then won the election, but his administration had hardly begun when a lunatic (a nobody who outlandishly imagined that Garfield should have named him ambassador to France) shot him. He would have survived, except for the stunningly, inexcusably bad medical care he received. Along the way, the story encompassed other major figures of the period (including Alexander Graham Bell, playing an important role in trying to save Garfield), painting amid the tragedy a bright picture of a country on its way up.
- Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. Also by Candice Millard, because I’d liked the Garfield book so much. This was also very enjoyable and enlightening, although not quite as much so, since I had recently seen the 1972 film “Young Winston,” which for a movie did a pretty good job of covering the same portion of Churchill’s life. It’s available on Prime if you want to watch it. But I still definitely recommend the book.
- Artists of the period. Our trip to Boston last year — specifically, our visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — intensified an already-growing interest in such artists as Isabella’s friend John Singer Sargent, and similar painters such as Anders Zorn — who painted an arresting portrait of Isabella, which I initially mistook for the work of Sargent. Both of them were definitely chroniclers of the Gilded Age, painting famous portraits of heiresses (here’s my favorite, which I like even better than Madame X.) From them, I’ve started branching out to other, similar artists such as George William Joy, whose painting of omnibus passengers I liked better than Zorn’s. It reminded me of the kinds of photos I sneak of fellow passengers on subways — the pictures one of my granddaughters insisted I stop taking. She’s right, but I find the habit hard to shake.
- Theodore Rex — Still making my way — my slow and steady way — through this, the second book in Edmund Morris’ trilogy about Teddy. It’s pretty awesome. He breaks down Roosevelt’s time as president almost day by day, and in rich detail, and it never gets dull or tiresome (TR wouldn’t have allowed that). Extra bonus: The portrait on the cover is, of course, by John Singer Sargent. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times lately, and will no doubt mention it even more as I proceed. It’s great nourishment for the mind to see issues of actual importance discussed with an intelligence that should make us all envious as we are bombarded by the Kulturkampf of left and right in our own day. And then see them acted upon effectively. We were a nation of such promise then, with a political system that worked.
For all that, I didn’t seek this stuff out on purpose in a deliberate effort to study the period. I just wandered from one to another, and only realized quite recently how wrapped up I had become in this time.
We’ve had a number of prominently named historical periods since the Progressive, such as:
- The Great War
- The Roaring ’20s
- The Great Depression
- The New Deal
- The ’60s
- The Reagan Era (notice how we just skipped over the ’70s?)
- The Post-Cold War Era
And now, finally, I get to my point, which is that after the heady days of the ’90s, things got kind of fuzzy.
I mean, what do we call THESE times? And does it involve words that can be used on a blog that observes the conventions of what we used to call a “family newspaper”?
For that matter, with the atomization of society due to the profusion of media, is it even possible to make any sort of coherent, widely acceptable generalization about a world that is divided into so many camps that see the world so differently?
I’ll offer one possibility: The Schizophrenic Era. I’m not making a clinical diagnosis here, so don’t correct me with a bunch of quotes from the DSM. I’m thinking in terms of the Greek etymology of the term, meaning “splitting of the mind”… because that fragmentation explains our period as much as any.
I’m not going to suggest any other terms right now, because mainly, I’m curious as to what y’all would call it…