A History of American Time

By Michael O'Malley

Viking. 384 pp. $19.95


By Herbert Rappaport

Simon and Schuster. 221 pp. $19.95

THESE TWO books present complementary views of our experience of time. Michael O'Malley in Keeping Watch examines time from the outside; what he sees is a medium of social organization and control. In Marking Time Herbert Rappaport examines time from inside; time emerges as the medium of memory and anticipation. The contrast is between the historian and the psychologist, though both share an uneasiness about the state of our culture and its dominant values: O'Malley is concerned that the conflict between the linear view of time spawned by "machines and efficiency" and the cyclical time of nature and "our internal natural cycles" has yet to be resolved; Rappaport is concerned about a society in which both past and future have become "distant and meaningless," "a society organized for living in a narrow slice of the time line, the 'now.' "

O'Malley's "History of American Time" focuses on one century (1826-1925) and thus, unfortunately, does not extend into TV time, into those realms where computers make time into ever-present money worldwide and transform our weaponry into the split-seconds of a suicide squeeze, where ephemeris (or celestial) time, and the fabulous precisions of our instrumentation carry us close to the edge/beginning of time and the universe. O'Malley presents his chosen century as a series of confrontations between a traditional sense of time as "rooted in nature and God" and modern, "machine-made time" -- recurrent confrontations between cyclical, agrarian time and linear, city time. He sees that conflict as present at the birth of the republic in the opposition between Hamilton's emphasis on progress through linear time toward national "greatness" and Jefferson's conviction that "progress through time presaged American democracy's senility and eventual death."

O'Malley describes in detail the local and regional competitions and confusions that plagued time or, more precisely, timetables before 1883 when the railroads cooperated to establish zones of standard time much like those we assume at present. In O'Malley's view this was a reorganization of "public time to suit the needs of commerce," a victory for "the linear side of western thinking about time." In any event, as he demonstrates, 1883 by no means marked an end to controversies between those in favor of local or "natural" time and proponents of "linear and industrial time." In his final chapter O'Malley details the revival of this controversy in the country-vs.-city battles over daylight saving time in the 1920s.

Between these two heaves of storm O'Malley suggests that everybody had been placed "within the reach of standard time." The mass producers and advertisers of reliable, inexpensive clocks and watches offered everyone the chance "to actually control Time." Meanwhile, stopwatch studies of the efficiency of laborers at work were fracturing "time to suit the boss's agenda." In his penultimate chapter he turns aside to explore the early history of the motion picture in this country as a complex and instructive way of imaging "the tension between gaining control over time and surrendering control to time."

The Scopes trial of 1925, coming on the heels of the bitter post World War I controversy over daylight saving time, serves O'Malley as a final image of the conflict between time "rooted in nature and God" (William Jennings Bryan) and "machine-made time" (Clarence Darrow). The trouble with this is that the machine-made time of a century of industrialization hardly coordinates with the geological time which clocks Darwinian evolution. Both kinds of time can be characterized in Bryan's phrase as "cold and heartless," but in such radically different ways that the word "time" hardly seems adequate to cover both. There are further difficulties with O'Malley's thesis: It is by no means clear, as O'Malley seems to suggest, that the opponents of standard time, stop-watch studies, daylight saving time and Darwinian evolution were proponents of natural, cyclical time. O'Malley's overuse (to the point of a nagging refrain) of the word "control" to characterize as insidious the motives of the promoters of linear time neglects the opposition's intense desire to establish its own brand of control, its own "agenda."

In Marking Time Herbert Rappaport argues that a properly balanced sense of time, a proper integration of past, present and future, is essential to psychological health and well-being. He further argues that a flawed sense of time is not just a symptom but may well be a fundamental cause of ill-health. Contemporary psychology and psychotherapy he regards as over-concerned with the past to the exclusion of a healthy concern for the future. And, to the detriment of most of us, "our whole culture may be living with narrow future possibilities," suffering from what he regards as "this vacuum in values." He concludes with the conviction (and hope) "that psychology can adjust to confront the issues of values and futurity."

So far, so good. But throughout, Marking Time is troubled with uncertainties about the relation between linear and cyclical time not unlike those that unsettle the reader of Keeping Watch. Rappaport has developed a research and clinical tool which he calls the "time line." He asks patients and research subjects to plot the past, present and future of their lives on 24-inch strips of adding-machine paper. His basic assumption is that "lived time can be approximated by the spatial metaphor of a line." Yes and no. Within 20 pages he is asserting that "non-linear time experiences are essential to human well-being." The strips of paper may be useful clinical and research tools, but their emphasis on linearity relates ambiguously to Rappaport's emphasis throughout on time as the cyclical medium of our mortality and memory. What he seeks to encourage as the "synergism between past and future," each perpetually reshaping the other, might better be represented not by a line by by a Mo bius strip.

Finally, the titles of both books involve multiple meanings not effectively exploited in the books themselves. Keeping Watch suggests not only possessing a watch and keeping an eye on the clock; it also could suggest standing watch as in "Watchman, what of the night?" But that question seems to have been outside the scope of O'Malley's otherwise thorough scholarship. Marking Time clearly means paying attention to time; specifically, marking a Rappaport time line; but in military parlance, marking time means marching in place; figuratively, being at a standstill (which is not exactly what Rappaport seems to have had in mind).

St. Augustine had the last word 16 centuries ago: "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know." Don Gifford, an emeritus professor of English at Williams College, is the author, most recently, of "The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception."