Simpler Times

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Look at this.” Fred Alien, the managing editor, was in my office, holding a piece of paper and clearly irritated. My first thought was that an error had slipped through the mesh of our fact-checking system and been instantly spotted—as they always are—by a reader. To my surprise, what he handed me was a press release from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers bearing the not especially inflammatory headline WIND-POWERED GRISTMILL LANDMARKED . But when I started reading it, I saw right away what had annoyed him.

“The wind-powered gristmill in Victoria, Texas, truly depicts a simpler time, when farmers relied on the only gristmill for miles around to turn their corn to flour. …” There it is again: a “simpler time”—the obdurate conviction that earlier generations had clearer choices, less-demanding vocations, and generally just a bit more time on their hands.

Consider that homely gristmill for a moment, and what it actually suggests. Before its average customer could have a piece of toast, he had to break the Texas earth, plant grain, raise the grain, harvest the grain, haul it to the mill, milk the cow (a universe of attendant chores, many of them carried out in freezing filth, before dawn, after sunset), chop wood, make a fire, and bake bread. And he could spend all the spare time his languid routine afforded down by the old fishin’ hole contemplating whether duty demanded that he go off to fight in a war that would determine whether his state had the right to leave the Union.

I don’t mean to deride the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, an organization that understands pefectly well the complexities of our industrial past and commemorates it with imagination and zeal. But there seems to be something in human nature that is inclined to patronize the shades of our predecessors. After all, we know how their lives worked out, and it can be difficult to imagine that the sorted and catalogued past was once a puzzling, disheveled present.

If we at this magazine are doing our jobs properly, every issue will reflect something of the complexities of those other presents. In this one, for instance, there are John Kasson’s thoughts about the meaning of manners in our society; he sees in the high formality of the last century not the amusing ostentations of a more leisurely age but a frightened closing of middle-class ranks against the tumultuous social changes being worked in the forced draft of the Industrial Revolution. Then, too, there is the great nineteenth-century painter Thomas Eakins, whose sexuality, at once frank and mysterious, and extraordinary clarity of vision make him seem the most “modern” of people. And the fact that Lyndon Johnson has seized two articles in this single issue—each heralding an important new assessment of him, one on film, one printed—certainly suggests that yesterday is as demanding, baffling, and exhilarating a place as today.