How Have We Changed?

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One of the remarkably unremarked differences between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s is this: Back then, words, written and spoken, were important in ways that today seem startling.

“Robert Frost strode onto the stage at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation from an overflow house. . . . One night in 1957, T. S. Eliot was reading his poems to an overflow audience in Columbia’s McMillin Theater. Even faculty members had difficulty getting tickets, and people were crowded into the windows and doors, and listening outside to Eliot over loudspeakers. . . . Dylan Thomas stood at the podium. . . . This was his third American tour in two years.” So writes Jeffrey Hart in his wonderful When the Going Was Good: American Life in the Fifties .

Today it is unimaginable that any poet could occasion such excitement on any American campus or any other American venue. Of course Frosts and Eliots and Thomases are thin on the ground today, but they were not really plentiful then.

Back then, even the impulse of youthful rebellion was apt to take a literary turn. Again, Hart: “Outside McMillin Theater there was a vast throng that had been unable to get in. They pounded on the doors and milled around. Ticketholders entered between lines of police.” The occasion was a reading, or perhaps a howling, by Alien Ginsberg and two other “beat” poets. Jack Kerouac was supposed to be there but, not uncharacteristically, wasn’t.

Nowadays the way to pack a campus auditorium is to invite a political extremist to deliver a rant or to book rock or rap musicians who advertise their arrested development by wearing their baseball caps backward. That fashion statement is, presumably, some sort of rebellious gesture. Back in the 1950s some of us preferred to dissent by declaiming e. e. cummings:

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds (also, with the church’s protestant blessings daughters, unscented shapeless spirited) they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead, . . .

On campuses, particularly, it is difficult for poetry, or literature generally, to be as important as it once was. This is because many teachers of literature teach in strange, off-putting ways. They treat great works as mere “texts” of indeterminate meaning. Books that once were passionately read as food for the soul have become mere fodder for teaching “strategies” to reveal all of life as a power struggle between the privileged and their victims. Words have become toys, not taken seriously. Earnestly, but not really seriously.

It is beyond the scope of this wee response to American Heritage ’s query to try to explain all the reasons for the change in the status of words. Suffice it to say, whatever the change says about us, it cannot be encouraging.

The status of women has undergone greater changes in the last four decades than in the last four centuries. No change goes deeper into the social structure. It alters the relations of wife to husband, of mother to child, of women to other women. This of itself is enough to identify ours as a revolutionary period. Yet it has been a (largely) peaceful revolution, and a fruitful one. It tapped the resources of half the human race.

The most interesting change has been the rapid growth in ethnic diversity, the struggles of the nation to adjust to that diversity, and the way the diversity has made us less culturally monolithic, isolated, and unsophisticated.

We contemplate our navel so closely, we survey ourselves and write about ourselves so intensely, it is difficult to believe there can be any overlooked change. There may, however, be an undervalued change, and this is in our shortened attention span, our declining educational expectations, and our thirst for spectacle.