July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
Lt. Willis Seward Keith, the hero of Herman Wouk’s novel The Caine Mutiny , spends New Year’s Eve of 1943 in the wheelhouse of the wretched old World War I destroyer Caine , nursing the gloomy conviction that the war is “diffuse, slogging, and empty of drama.” He is on his way to take part in some of the greatest battles ever fought, but they will seem at the time nothing more than long bursts of incoherent busyness. “He had often wondered in his boyhood what it must have been like to live in the stirring days of Gettysburg and Waterloo; now he knew, but he didn’t know that he knew.” Only years later would he come to realize that “he, too, Willie Keith, had fought on Saint Crispin’s Day.”
The travails of the 1970s bear little enough resemblance to those of the 1940s, but I thought of this passage when I first read Nicholas Lemann’s essay on the seventies that opens this issue, because it showed me an era 1 simply didn’t know was one.
The 1960s were an Era, of course; and now it seems the eighties are an Era too. Both decades were very conscious of themselves while they were going on, in much the same way that the 1920s were. But what about the seventies?
I graduated from college just as the sixties ended, and it seemed to me and to my friends that something rather grand and wrenching—we would have called it defining , had the word had any currency back then—was coming to a close. True, the war that had given such shape to the last half of the decade was still grinding on; in fact, 1 can’t think of a thing that changed noticeably. Certainly, if the suit I bought my first summer out of college is any indication, clothes didn’t become less extreme (I have it still, a chilling relic—inch-wide blue and white stripes, lots of pockets with cunning little flaps that button down, a belt on the back of the jacket—and at the time nobody said, “This is a business office. Take that off and burn it or you’re fired").
But even if nothing really turned with the turning decade, we felt it had; we knew that a big time was over and that the 1970s were merely a formless present we had to occupy until some more history came our way. But history doesn’t always come on like the old “March of Time,” as Nicholas Lemann makes clear. He examines what seemed a hiatus and finds in it an era as sharply defined as the clangorous sixties, and one that may contain greater implications for this country.
In one of his stories Stephen Vincent Benêt has the narrator speak of the New York City of his youth. He mentions the telegraph poles with their wild skeins of wire, and the cops in their tall helmets, and the steam locomotives that pulled the elevated trains. Then he says, “I have seen books since recalling these things as quaint, and they have made me feel odd. For they assume that I knew I was living in an epoch, and, of course, I did not know.”
Lemann’s essay reminds us that we are always living through epochs. Like Willie Keith, we can fight our St. Crispin’s Day without even knowing, and one of history’s stranger and more melancholy pleasures is to realize how much of it has been made while we were looking the other way.