|Music and Literature - William Michael Harnett|
For upon awakening on Wednesday morning, I rolled over to turn off the alarm on my cell phone (I used to have a very nice digital clock which at the ripe old age of 15 decided to cease functioning) and I noticed that the koobecaF "chat head" on my phone was active. That is, someone had sent me the equivalent of a text message. (If you have an Android phone and use Facebook Messaging you'll know what I mean. If you don't, well, it's not really critical to my story.)
I saw who it was and realized that whatever the topic, it would be interesting. This fellow (a friend and reader of the blog from the Windy City) is never, ever boring. If he has sent me something, it's bound to be interesting. When I saw the following, and then read the accompanying text, I suddenly felt that my education was somewhat lacking...
The accompanying text was as follows -
My two cents' worth: what I love about F. Scott is that to truly understand this beautiful paragraph, one must understand not only the general history of France and England, but also Shiloh, which then presupposes an understanding of the American Civil War; it then references the Argonne, which presupposes an understanding of the Franco-Prussian War, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Schlieffen Plan, the Rape of Belgium, the Battle of the Frontiers, Mons, the Marne, Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, et al.Well, I have to say, I am educated enough to realize that "F. Scott" must be none other than the famous American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Seeing as how the photo comes from a book expounding upon Mr. Fitzgerald's work, I assumed that the quoted bits must be from The Great Gatsby. A quick Google search of the opening lines proved me wrong. The text is supposedly from The Crack-Up, a collection of essays by Mr. Fitzgerald about which Wikipedia has this to say -
I.e., to understand America, you need to understand history.
It consists of previously unpublished letters, notes and also three essays originally written for and published first in the Esquire magazine during 1936. It was compiled and edited by Edmund Wilson shortly after Fitzgerald's death in 1940. (Source)(I could not find that quote in an on-line version of The Crack Up. Take that for whatever it's worth.)
Doing a bit more digging, I found this related bit from one of Mr Fitzgerald's short stories, The Swimmers, which was published in the Saturday Evening Post on the 19th of October, 1929 -
"Watching the fading city, the fading shore, from the deck of the Majestic, he had a sense of overwhelming gratitude and of gladness that America was there, that under the ugly débris of industry the rich land still pushed up, incorrigibly lavish and fertile, and that in the heart of the leaderless people the old generosities and devotions fought on, breaking out sometimes in fanaticism and excess, but indomitable and undefeated. There was a lost generation in the saddle at the moment, but it seemed to him that the men coming on, the men of the war, were better; and all his old feeling that America was a bizarre accident, a sort of historical sport, had gone forever. The best of America was the best of the world." (Source)Now all of this is rather heady stuff at any time of the day, at 0547 in the morning it was all rather mind boggling.
All that aside, my correspondent was interested in my thoughts on the subject as we are both rather rabid history fans. So after much pondering (and a bit of research) I have the following to offer. Before I do that however, I have sat for much of the day wondering why my high school did not expose me to F. Scott Fitzgerald but rather felt the need to inflict Silas Marner upon my classmates and me. ( I still shudder to hear the phrase "Eppie in de toal-hole!"* Which, fortunately, is seldom heard these days. I must admit though, I'd like to re-read that book to see if I didn't like it because I was required to read it or for other reasons. To be fair and all that.) So with the up front confession that I have never read any of Mr Fitzgerald's work, hence the title of the post, let's begin...
“France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter - it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”The first thing that struck me about this is that France, in my opinion, was the first modern state.
In France, Eric Hobsbawm argues, the French state preceded the formation of the French people. Hobsbawm considers that the state made the French nation, not French nationalism, which emerged at the end of the 19th century, the time of the Dreyfus Affair. At the time of the 1789 French Revolution, only half of the French people spoke some French, and 12-13% spoke it "correctly", according to Hobsbawm.**As to England being a people, rather than a land, when it comes to the English yes, I'd agree. Though the Scots, the Irish, and the Welsh are rather annoyed at being lumped in with the "English." (Who are really descendants of the Angles and the Saxons from the European mainland, hence the term Anglo-Saxon being used for people from that group of islands. Again, the Celts and Britons would take umbrage at the term Anglo-Saxon. Mustn't forget the Norman invasion either, kind of a big deal really. )
But I see his point, America is different. The United States is a collection of people whose ancestors came from all four corners of the globe. Certainly it started in the original thirteen colonies with a heavy Anglo-Saxon influence, after all we did belong to Britain, er, the United Kingdom I suppose, at one time. Fought a bloody war to get out of that arrangement we did.
As more people were brought it, the complexion of the nation began to change. (No, I haven't forgotten about the African slaves in the South. I'm not there yet. As they had little say in how things were run, they could only impact the nation by their labors. Which were arduous.) Americans were no longer of primarily British descent.
Then the Great Slaughter of 1861-1865 happened. Those "graves at Shiloh" mentioned above (and a dozen plus other battlefields) colored the character of the country. The freeing of the slaves added another aspect to what America was all about. (And in many hearts and minds, the struggle for real equality continues, with not everyone agreeing what that really means.)
Now Mr. Fitzgerald didn't live to see World War II, the war which dwarfed the "Great War" in nearly every category. Those "country boys dying in the Argonne" would have recognized their counterparts dying at Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Corregidor, Wake, Midway, Normandy, Bastogne, the skies over Germany, the Chosin Reservoir, the Ia Drang Valley, Hué, the skies over North Vietnam, Fallujah, and Operation Anaconda. None as bloody as our own Civil War but all having a huge impact on the national psyche.
So I would agree that in order to understand America, you need to know her history. Without knowing what formed us, what is still shaping us in fact, you can't truly understand your own place in this country nor the nation's place in the world. But the same is true to understand any country.
To understand the United Kingdom is futile without knowing anything about Hastings, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, the battles of Agincourt and Crécy, the Armada, Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution, Nelson, Wellington, the Somme, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and hundreds of other events in the history of those isles.
You cannot understand modern France without knowing of the slaughter in the trenches of World War I, the events of 1940, DeGaulle, the Maquis, Dien Bien Phu, Algeria, and again, all of the events which make up a nation's history and shape the character of the citizens. (Go back further to Jean d'Arc, the Huguenots, Louis XIV, Napoléon, France has a rich history, soaked in blood!)
So David, two things really struck me about your message in the wee hours of the night:
- the impact of history on damned near everything and
- I need to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, I feel somewhat deprived at not having done so.
One last thing, I have friends who don't like to read. To me that is incomprehensible. So to you all, read, read a lot, know your history, know the history of others, it might benefit you in the long run and hey, it's entertaining. Though, as always, YMMV.
Thanks David, I'm sure we've not heard the last of this topic, By the way, have you started reading August 1914 yet? Solzhenitsyn was a brilliant writer, starts slow but as you read of the lives of the characters in the early going, the author doesn't let you forget that the war clouds are gathering. The fin de siècle approaches, to understand Russia, understanding World War I from their point of view is critical. Tannenberg and all that still echoes in the Russian psyche.
My, but I do go on...
* Why I remember that particular phrase after all these years puzzles me greatly.
** Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780