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26 November 2007

Moment in Time

Inspiration comes in so many ways. Not long ago we talked about the first books to interest us in history. My first was a volume on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. But the more I thought about it, the more I realize that it was a progression of books that caught my interest, drew me to writing about relationships and romance and, finally, prompted me to do something besides think about it. In my last post I wrote about books that were character based – that drew me to romance. My thanks to Tracy for starting th is discussion.

One of the obscure books that drew me to social history rather than political is Christopher Morley’s essay The History of an Autumn. Of course it is possible that Morley is as obscure as his work. He was one of the founders of the Saturday Review of Literature, a judge for the Book Of the Month Club, edited two editions of Roget Thesaurus and wrote both fiction and non-fiction including, Kitty Foyle, a novel that was turned into a much better known movie. (I wonder what kind of money an option was worth in those days?)

History of an Autumn is a picture of the world sliding towards war. Hitler had already begun his march to conquer was slowed by the signing of the Munich Agreement with Britian’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938. We now call it appeasement, but some actually hoped it would mean peace.

The opening quote of Morley’s book is what hooked me: a reporter for the NY Times asked people in Paris what they thought of The Crisis. A laborer responded, “I don’t know, I live in the suburbs.” What has stayed in my mind for such a long time is the idea that some people, whether they were leaders or laborers, did not realize or refused to accept that their world was about to be changed dramatically if not destroyed completely. Fifty million people died in World War II. Morley was surely not the only one to write of an uncertain future while living life as though they had been spared.

There are so many other times when man has tried to ignore the inevitable. The French Revolution comes to mind. Also, the attitude of some towards desegregation. Can you think of other examples? Or any books that, like Morely’s, address a moment of time that most historians ignore?

Let’s keep them all before 1950 so this is a historical discussion and not a political one.

Here is one of my favorite Morley quotes: "Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity."

10 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Read, every day, something no one else is reading.

A lovely statement in this age of mass marketing.

Kitty Foyle was a teen fave of mine.

As for life during the gathering storm of historical crisis: most devastating portrayals for me (pre-1950 history) were the films "The Pianist" and the much less well known but even better and braver "Fateless."

1:56 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm not sure I can come up with anything on the spot, but I do love the quote.

I'm very fond of the stories surrounding Dally the Tall and how she survived the French Revolution. There's even a movie about it, The Lady and the Duke.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Mary! One of my favorite books when I was studying late 15th century British history in college was "An Age of Ambition" by F.R.H. Du Boulay, which looks at British society at a time when fighting skills were becoming less important than the ability to read and write and negotiate.

5:20 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Love that quote, Mary! Words to live by for anyone. Pam, I too was devastated by The Pianist. What an amazing and heartbreaking film. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is that kind of read. You know what will happen at the end, but you keep on reading and it breaks your heart at every turn.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Interesting that you would pick films rather than books, Pam.

Actually I think the graphic novel MAUS -- which we talked about awhile ago falls into the category of following characters on the path to disaster. How many times did you want to yell -- No. Leave now!

Tracy, I will put that on my list as the influence of literacy on the culture fascinates me.

So what are you reading that nobody else is?

7:35 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Well, last night I was reading "Military Uniforms of the Peninsular War" by Martin Windrow and Gerry Embleton and "The Prince of Pleasure" by J.B. Priestley. Not necessarily books no one else is reading, but they certainly weren't the topic of conversation at the dinner party I attended this evening when the discussion turned to books :-).

11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first novel that comes to mind is Bandenheim 1938 - kind of the same time period as the Autumn book you mentioned.

The random book I'm reading right now that I *think* very few are reading is Paula Fredriksen's From Jesus to Christ. (Though there was a Frontline based on the book years ago, so it got a bigger audience than a typical yale univ. press book may get.) It's definitely challenging my brain. I was home for Thanksgiving and got the urge to read non-fiction one night. This is what interested me the most on the bookshelves in my parents' guest bedroom.
-Michelle

7:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Interesting that you would pick films rather than books, Pam.

For the shallowest of reasons, Mary, I'm afraid. The movies do that Get out now, NOW I tell you trope so well by this time, and I'm a pushover for those mittleuropishche urban reconstructions -- cafes, trams, hats, overcoats. Another really glamorous one is Gloomy Sunday.

I ought to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as doglady suggests, for a historical inevitability that doesn't take place in my 20th century urban imagination.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Mary, I'm chiming in really late in this discussion, but I loved that quote!! You always hear about Gandhi in relation to all that he did with India. However, much before he became known, he tried out his ideas of non-violence in South Africa as a young idealist lawyer. There's hardly ever anything written about it. The movie Gandhi was my first introduction to it.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Faith said...

Hi. I loved this post. I was wondering which of Morley's books contained this essay. I have a book of his collected essay's but it's not in there. It sounds so interesting and his writing is so different than anything that I have read from that period. I really liked it.

6:56 PM  

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