The NY Times' Sam Tanenhaus reflects on the nearly indelible American fable that "With this horrific, irrational deed" of President Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago today, "a curse was laid upon the land, and the people fell from grace." Until that day, or so Americans' mythopoeic memory goes, a kind of secular paradise was in the making, in which the president "beckon[ed] the country forth to the future," and soon we would conquer the iniquities of "totalitarianism, poverty, racial injustice." But an assassin's bullet ended the dream, and the hope of the '60s turned to despair.
All that, observes Tanenhaus, is very bad history. "America," he writes, "had already become a divided, dangerous place, with intimations of anarchic disorder," which he proceeds to survey. And all that, I would observe, is true enough, although it goes not nearly far enough.
For there's another memorable American fable--that of the pacific, postwar, domestically blessed 1950s. In reality, how blessed? Many lived in unending terror of a thermonuclear holocaust, while, as the horrors of McCarthyism raged, the decade's intelligentsia brooded to the point of morbidity about the nation's suffocating cultural conformity. The decade before that? Global war and unimaginable desolation, even though many still living prefer to remember that decade as one of Glenn Miller and bugling boys and America's dazzling rise to international preeminence.
Retreating farther, the 1930s were, to most Americans then, precisely that decade in which "a curse was laid upon the land, and the people fell from grace." Still, to hear contemporaries recall that decadal era, it was a "simpler, happier time."
The 1920s? The freewheeling, feminist-rising, speakeasy Jazz Age, right? Right, although it was also a time of ghastly wealth inequality, corporate hegemony, the stultifications of Elmer Gantryism and pre-McCarthyite red scares and persistent regret for having ruinously squandered the preceding decade on involvement in unworthy foreigners' affairs.
Before which, in another "happier time," the nation gripped itself in the tumult of Progressive rage against the social indifference of the established order, which followed The Gay Nineties! in which America's theretofore greatest economic depression took place, along with agrarian revolt, labor rebellions, and the deeply divisive rise of American imperialism. And so on.
My point in this muddled reverie is that, notwithstanding our revisionist self-fables, each of our easily packaged eras of America's past suffered its own unique set of curses in which we somehow fell from a grace never granted, but, somehow as well, we muddled through. We always do, and that's what prevents my congenital cynicism from totally swamping my always-distressed optimism.