12 April 2012

Titanic and the Geographies of Language and Moments in Time

Being sort of "bedridden" (a great old term in itself), gives one time in interesting ways. One way I've been using that time is to listen to audio books. And one of the books - before it descended into a mud-like boredom - was Stephen King's novel 11/22/63.

Even in 1970, there were more Howard
Johnson locations in America
McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's
combined (advert, 1960)
I loved the first 40% of the book. For me it began as the "best" of Stephen King - the wondrous storytelling capabilities of his short stories, novellas, and early novels - Carrie, The Shining, Christine- without the ponderous self-importance of his later works, including this one. OK, sure, the man desperately needs an editor to clear out 35% of his words (or 50% in his last 20 years of books), but this began as classic - fabulous - Stephen King. Second, it is historical fiction, and well done historical fiction is, for me, an incredible chance to learn in a truly beautiful way.

Historical fiction can be both bad history and bad storytelling (see Newt Gingrich), passable history and bad storytelling (see Morgan Llywelyn's ponderous Irish Century Novels), or great storytelling with emotionally accurate but event-confused history (Jack Finney's Time and Againis my favorite in this group - nothing will describe 1880s New York City to you in better ways, but I wouldn't set my clock with its specific accuracy). But at its best historical fiction can teach the past in ways history books usually cannot, and in ways school curricula - common or not - can rarely touch. From Finney's descriptive conversation with a late night horse trolley driver circa 1883, to Thomas Mallon's incredible visit with a female computer at the U.S. National Observatory in 1877, or his view of re-burials for US war dead in 1948, or his description of Grand Central Terminal in 1962, this genre offers a sense of place simply unavailable via date memorization, or any "great man, great moment" textbook history. Why? Because understanding history - actually understanding it - requires comprehending the motivations and fears of the people of a time. It is all about empathy. We talk a lot in history classes about stuff like the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo, but nothing of the mood in Europe which would find dominant Socialist parties in both Germany and France to ignore their belief systems and vote for war, and nothing of the middle class sensibilities in almost all European nations which provided cheering throngs for those war votes. For that concept you'd have to, at least, go to Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel.

What did people in 1960 fear?
How did that impact daily life?
We might read a lot about America's internment of Japanese citizens, even debate the legality and morality, but a much finer understanding comes with Snow Falling on Cedars. And thus, one-third of the way through King's latest, I will say that his meticulously drawn portrait of hardscrabble upper New England as the Eisenhower administration drifts toward an end, is a brilliantly taught lesson. The world of the grandparents (or great-grandparents) of our current students, the fears, the hopes, the mills, the factory labor, the environmental destruction, the casual-out-in-the-open discrimination, the ways information spread, the quite specific class distinctions, is so vanished now that it is impossible to explain the Vietnam War and how it began to our students.

King uses a term in his book. He speaks about the "geography of the language" of 1958, and of how his character needs to learn this to succeed in his missions. In Finney's Time and Again there are long courses in these languages and cultural norms for time travellers. This is essential stuff. Humans make decisions based on their knowledge and environments. If we want to be able to explore and understand history, we need to know less about dates, less about "big events" perhaps, and much more about "life."

Language comes from culture, of course, but it also controls culture. So the Geographies of language matter a great deal. New Yorkers, for example, denote distance in time - "I live 80 minutes out on the Island." "I live an hour north of the city." - which makes sense in a place where there is no specific correlation between miles to travel and any expected trip's length. People in Michigan always - always - hold their right hand up to you and point with a finger from their left hand to indicate where someplace is. People in Seattle wake up to weather forecasts suggesting "sunbreaks" and, on the best possible days, "the mountain is out." One of the great challenges of writing historical fiction is creating dialogue which sounds real and of the time while still maintaining contemporary reader understanding. Another is to describe a "foreign" world to readers without stumbling into the trap which creates bad science fiction - pausing to explain details every other paragraph.

The Histories of the Moment

A group of enticing historic anniversaries have collected over this first half of 2012, and this creates an opportunity to use the "geographies of language" to not just offer deep understandings of the past, but to combine that with work which just might improve empathy.

The RMS Titanic sank 100 years ago. The New York Mets were "born" 50 years ago. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom has reigned for 60 years. The first battle between "ironclad" warships occurred 150 years ago. The first K-mart opened 50 years ago, creating new kind of "discount store" chain. Humans reached the South Pole for the first time 100 years ago. Telstar, the world's first communications satellite went into orbit 50 years ago, and AT&T demonstrated phones with buttons to push instead of a rotary dial at Seattle's 1962 World's Fair.

Also in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and Ahmed Ben Bella finally led Algeria to independence from France (which was kind of like if Hawaii, or maybe California, decided to re-assert its independence from the United States). 150 years ago US President Abraham Lincoln signed two laws which brought the government deeply into the lives of many Americans - the Homestead Act granting land in the west, and the Morrill Act which began government support for "Land Grant Universities" like the pioneering State Agricultural College in Michigan (Now, Michigan State University).  Yes, Lincoln also signed the Emancipation Proclamation, though it did not impact slaves in the Union States of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, or Delaware. Lord Byron defended Luddite violence against new technologies 200 years ago.

The Battle of Algiers offers a documentary style visit to Algeria as the revolt builds,
the flip side, France in 1962, is shown in
The Day of the Jackal
And 25 years ago, the Commodore PET and the Apple II ushered in a new world of "computers in classrooms."

But how can we understand these moments in time unless we understand the worlds in which they occurred? What would you need to know to comprehend just how radically left the early Republican Party was so you might begin to grasp just how huge it was that the Morrill Act created real federal involvement in education? What must you understand about the world of 1912 to appreciate the fact that - despite "women and children first" - a first class adult male passenger was far more likely to survive the Titanic's sinking that a steerage class child? What might you need to understand about phones in 1962 to appreciate the possibilities inherent in Telstar and "Touch-Tone."

History is a disconnected, meaningless, series of memorizations unless it is built into a real context, and that context requires understanding the various geographies of a time, starting with the geography of the language. Let me offer one example: Working with sixth graders last fall, we were talking about Yuri Gagarin's moment as the first human in space. Students were fascinated, but immediately confused by two things - first - why didn't the US celebrate this amazing moment? and why hadn't their school talked about the recent 50th anniversary of this flight? And second - why were there these long periods when this first Cosmonaut was unable to communicate with anyone on earth?

How would kids understand the "space race" having grown up in a world where the US has become dependent on Russian technology to simply get into space? How would they understand the limited range of "tracking stations" living in a world where no one is ever "out of range." Truthfully, these sixth graders had no idea what "Soviet Union," "USSR," or "CCCP" ("ess-ess-ess-air") meant.

Likewise, there is a wonderful moment in Jack Finney's time travel novel, Time and Again, when the protagonist realizes, for the first time in his life, that Manhattan is truly an island. In 1882 New York, the only bridges link to Westchester County (or recent city annexations) across the Harlem River, unless you count the catwalk over the towers of the emerging "New York and Brooklyn Bridge." If he wants to escape the city police he either has to travel seven miles north to Kingsbridge, or he has to risk a ferry crossing when cops are undoubtedly looking for him there.

1960, the only radio was in the car...
Or, in my personal experience, I can remember reaching the end of my Police Academy time, and now sure I was passing all subjects, I began listening to a novel, The New Centurions, on the subway instead of law books. In the book there's this moment, at the start of the 1965 Watts Riots, where the LAPD officers fight their way back to their "black and white" so they can call for help. Why, I wondered, didn't they just call on their "portables"? It took me quite awhile to realize that in 1965 handheld police radios did not exist. Police cars were truly "radio cars."

So, in the 1912 world where "electronic communication" (if the word electronic yet existed) meant the telegraph (wired or wireless), would students think that communications were private? Would they think phone calls were private in the years before the dial was introduced? How long would it take to send a letter from, say, the Lower East Side of New York City to a rural village in the west of Ireland? Why were all those people in steerage? What was life like in Italy, Ireland, or the lower class areas of England? What did they know of the America they were headed to?

And what of the technology? Would the Titanic really have been racing?  Or did everyone already know that this ship, which had a twin already in regular service, could never go as fast as Cunard's RMS Mauretania? How well did wireless telegraphy work then? When the Titanic became the first ship to send the new S-O-S distress call, who heard it? Why was S-O-S chosen?

In Nacht und Eis, the original Titanic film telling, 1912 (Germany), US release 1913.
You can also watch
The Atlantic, a 1929 film from Britain, the first "talkie" Titanic.
Below: RMS Carpathia passes Sandy Hook as it enters New York Harbor with the survivors of the Titanic.
A 1912 Newsreel - most footage is of RMS Olympic during the summer of 1911
which is obvious from the Captain wearing "summer whites"

Woolworth's was the
center of most US
"Main Streets"
Knowledge of a time includes many things. Some are very small... What does "RMS" mean? If you heard the name "Titanic" or "Carpathia" would you automatically know which steamship line owned which ship? In 1952 how did news of King George VI's death travel? How was the Princess/Queen Elizabeth travelling? What did stores look like in 1962? What did food taste like if you were in an army in 1862? Some are big... What did the British Empire/Commonwealth look like as Elizabeth ascended to the throne? In 1862 who went to college? Why did the early Republican Party so favor what we might now call "big government"? Why didn't "the Union" outlaw slavery? How did Americans learn to fear "communism"?

These details, big and small, and millions of others, begin to explain the motivations which drive the actions of those participating in historic events. Why would "housewives" of 1962 abandon their main street department stores and local Woolworth's and Kresge's to drive out of their way to shop at K-mart? Why did men accept "women and children first"? (if they did), or why did that not apply to 1912's poor? Why did so many immigrants from Ireland join the US Army almost before they left the dock in New York? What was it like to turn 18 in 1952 America - especially if you were male?

Above: The funeral of His Majesty, King George VI of Great Britain, 1952
Below: Elizabeth is proclaimed Queen
Below: New York City, 1952
and London in 1952, from an Italian film
or, selling cigarettes, 1952

So phrases like "1-A," "cold war," "Soviet," "empire," "trans-Atlantic," "telephone," "immigrant," "college," even "shopping," suggest different things in different moments of history.

When Walter Lord, after interviewing the Titanic's survivors in the early 1950s, wrote, "Tonight the problems [of ship designer Thomas Andrews] were typical—trouble with the restaurant galley hot press . . . the coloring of the pebble dashing on the private promenade decks was too dark . . . too many screws on all the stateroom hat hooks. There was also the plan to change part of the writing room into two more staterooms. The writing room had originally been planned partly as a place where the ladies could retire after dinner. But this was the twentieth century, and the ladies just wouldn't retire. Clearly, a smaller room would do." what was he suggesting about the changes in upper class society? What about changes in sex lives? Did upper class changes lead or follow the changes in lower class relationships?

Ancient gas station on the former US-31 in
Norton Shores, Michigan
Lord, who has always been special to me because an Aunt of mine was his secretary as he preserved these memories, works hard in A Night to Rememberto create some of this background, "The things people took with them showed how they felt. Adolf Dyker handed his wife a small satchel containing two gold watches, two diamond rings, a sapphire necklace, and 200 Swedish crowns. Miss Edith Russell carried a musical toy pig (it played the Maxixe). Stewart Collett, a young theological student traveling Second Class, took the Bible he promised his brother he'd always carry until they met again. Lawrence Beesley stuffed the pockets of his Norfolk jacket with the books he had been reading in bed. Norman Campbell Chambers pocketed a revolver and compass. Steward Johnson, by now anticipating far more than "another Belfast trip," stuck four oranges under his blouse. Mrs. Dickinson Bishop left behind 11,000 dollars in jewelry, then sent her husband back for her muff," because this says a great deal about the humans involved. Far more than spending three hours watching Kate and Leo be 1997 types dropped into a 1912 event. 

But how to build this? A Virginia high school librarian told me that she had her kids read All Quiet on the Western Frontwhile wearing wet socks and sitting on the floor next to overturned tables which created "trench walls," a brilliant start. Perhaps you could have kids take a road trip "the old way" - avoiding the interstates and motorways - to offer some sense of life in 1952 or 1962. Looking closely, you'll find the remnants of old shopping centers, gas stations, and "Motels" along these routes. Or use YouTube to pull up a night of television. Or, using the old "city directories" in your local library (these often pre-dated phone books and listed residents and businesses both alphabetically and by address) to virtually recreate a map of your community in 1912, 1952, 1962.

40 years ago, NBA All Stars vs. ABA All Stars at the Nassau Coliseum
Below, US automobile television commercials

Finney suggests that if his characters want to time travel they must know enough of the minutiae to recreate the past in their memory. That they must know the color of the streetlights (very different in my childhood than now) and what the trolley fare would be, and who was president, and - in a general way - what people ate for dinner. I think he is right, and for history to be anything more than meaningless, we need a little bit of time travel, we need enough empathetic skills to imagine the lives of others who are unlike ourselves.

So make room for real history. Use these big anniversaries as paths to the past. It will not just build rel knowledge of history, it will build skills which really help our current world.

- Ira Socol

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