- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
SECOND OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
If we were in a cultural lag, we were still representative of the nation as a whole—a nation that lived in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln but was painfully trying to adjust itself to the new era of applied technology, which creates its own demands as it goes along. Our Michigan forests vanished in little more than half a century, partly because the country needed lumber but even more because it had developed new ways to fell trees, move them to the mills, transform them into boards, and get the boards to market. Because it could do these things faster, it had to do them faster. The maddening thing about a technological improvement is that it must be used to the limit. Natural resources have to be treated as expendable. New devices have to be used at full capacity; new processes have to be tuned up, perfected, developed until they can be replaced by something better. Our Founding Fathers had seen constant improvement as the basic law of life, and the blind force that dominated the new society agreed with them. The difference was that the Fathers thought the improvement must take place in people, while the new power believed that it should take place in machines. Where the machines would take the people who worked so untiringly to improve them is still an open question.
At any rate, the years passed slowly, and we had nothing to do but taste the special flavor of each day. In the spring the south wind carried the scent of apple blossoms and lilacs, and the summer was warm, timeless, and peaceful, with clear water for swimming, and fish to be caught. Autumn was somewhat sad, because it was a reminder that even a friendly changeless world had to show a different face now and then. Yet the flaming maple leaves glowed through the October haze with an implicit promise that in the end everything would be all right; and even though the winter was long and cold, it offered coasting and skiing and skating, and its white fields glittered under the sunlight and caught the glint of the big stars at night. There was nothing to do but grow up, and we could take our time about it.
Part of this attitude came no doubt because we lived in a hopeful middle-class society that was adrift in a quiet backwater, seemingly removed from the current of change that swept down the mainstream. Knowing very little about the outside world, we accepted it without questioning it; we understood that a good many things were wrong with it, but it was easy to suppose that they were being worked out. I used to hear grown-ups repeat that timeworn, stupendously false sentence of reassurance: Whatever is, is right. I have not heard anyone say that for more than half a century, and it is certain that no one will ever say it again, so that it is hard now to believe that any sensible adult ever felt that way; yet it passed for distilled wisdom at that time. When I was about twelve years old, I had a private suspicion that the world might actually come to an end in my lifetime. Why not? The big wrongs were all being righted, the world was steadily getting better, and it probably would not be long before all of the necessary reforms had been made; then the universe, the fullness of God’s time having arrived, would be rolled up like a scroll, and as the revival hymn said, time would be no more. It figured.
It may of course be true that only a quite backward child would have had such a daydream. Yet it was characteristic of my time and place. Our town was a tiny fragment of the American whole, sliced off for the microscope, showing in an enlarged form the inner characteristics of the larger society; and my boyhood in turn was a slice of the town, with its quaint fundamentals greatly magnified. On the eve of the terrible century of mass slaughter and wholesale collapse, of concentration camps and bombing raids, of cities gone to ruin and race relations grown desperate and poisonous, of the general collapse of all accepted values and the unendurable terror of the age of nuclear fission—on the very eve of all of this, it was possible, even inevitable, for many people to be optimistic. The world was about to take off its mask, and our worst nightmares did not warn us what we were going to see.
So childhood then mirrored a peace of mind that is not to be found today. But it also mirrored something else—the simple fact that in our town there was always plenty of room for children to play. We had all outdoors at our disposal. All we needed was a trace of imagination, and every child has that. The place to exercise the imagination lay all about us.