One of the glories of the holidays, tucked away here in the hills of Connecticut, is the sense of annual rediscovery the season brings. The little white frame church, standing off a country road amid maples and pines for close to 200 years now, the place where we have celebrated joys and sorrows in times past, has never looked lovelier. The children, gathered from afar, somehow have emerged as people with strong personal values, idealism even. The people you meet in casual conversation, though troubled about many concerns of the day, often deeply so, remain essentially confident about their personal future, if not so much the world's.
Not that any this reveals great mysteries, but for a temporary refugee from the staleness of Washington all of these signs taken together become both welcome and reassuring.
Something else about this holiday bears note. It concerns the collective state of the nation, more than the individuals in it.
This season there exists evidence that Americans, the most preoccupied people anywhere with today and now, are developing more a sense of perspective about the forces in the past that have shaped their present. That, if true, would be the most reassuring sign of all.
I don't know about you, but to me the long holiday break provides an annual chance to catch up on the latest offerings from Hollywood and from our book publishers.
Three of the most acclaimed movies now playing around the country are portrayals of distinct historical periods that profoundly affected our lives this century.
The first, "Ragtime," evokes the turn-of-the-century days of Theodore Roosevelt, when America began to come of age as a world power. "Reds" tells the story of the romantic John Reed's role in the Russian revolution, an American innocent abroad, caught up in the excitement of being a radical in the World War I era, when his countrymen, idealistically and naively, fought and died to make the world safe for democracy. "Pennies From Heaven" brilliantly recreates the grim days of the Great Depression by playing back to us the recordings of the songs people listened to then.
This last film, in particular, is an amazing achievement. It appears, deceptively, to be a parody of the musical styles of those times, the '80s looking back with bemused and superior smugness on the silly little songs and dance routines of 50 years ago. In fact, it stands as a touching reminder of how deeply people yearned for something to lift them out of their daily sorrows. Failing to find it in real life, they took momentary pleasure by escaping harsh realities through the medium of the movies. Hollywood, the capital of dreams, never let them down; it always offered a predictably happy ending, just as our song writers always provided comforting cheer by telling us that a smile could be our umbrella. Even if it rained, it rained pennies from heaven.SIGNS 6
Books, too, this season, are reinforcing this sense of national examination of the immediate past that affect us still. Two on my Christmas list have been especially memorable.
Joseph Alsop's personal memoir, "FDR," captures in splendid style and historical sweep the age of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose 100th birthday comes later this month.
The other volume, "Washington Despatches, 1941-1945," reproduces weekly private reports sent to London from the British Embassy in Washington during World War II, for the benefit of Winston Churchill and others. Most of them were written by Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford don then posted to the United States as head of his embassy's Special Survey Section. With the possible exception of Robert E. Sherwood's monumental "Roosevelt and Hopkins," Sir Isaiah, as he is today, celebrated now as one of the world's foremost intellects, provides what is probably the best portrait that exists of wartime Washington and the leading figures in it.
Like the movie portrayals now on view at the neighborhood theaters, both Alsop's and Berlin's words about the past are relevant today. At the end of his account, Alsop apologizes for perhaps sounding like "a sorry praiser of the past, as men over 70 tend to do."
Then he describes what it was about FDR that made him so great a president and representative of the nation. The day after Pearl Harbor, Alsop recalls, he found himself in Hong Kong, with Japanese forces already across the city's frontier on the mainland. He listened to a radio broadcast of Roosevelt's war message to Congress in a blacked-out apartment while bombs from a Japanese air raid were falling blocks away. As he writes:
"Yet in these fairly gloomy and frustrating circumstances, it never for one moment occurred to me that there might be the smallest doubt about the outcome of the vast war the president was asking the Congress to declare in proper form. Nor did I find any other American throughout the entire war who ever doubted the eventual outcome. Even more than the feeling that there were giants in the land, I now feel nostalgia for the absolute confidence in the American future which was the necessary foundation of this total absence of doubt.
"Hope was in fact Franklin Roosevelt's greatest gift to his fellow Americans. Partly he gave us hope by his deeds, when he came to office in a time that seemed utterly devoid of hope. But even more, he gave us hope because all could see that he himself felt not the slightest doubt about the future at any time in his years as president. Defeats there might be (though they were rare) on this bill or that in Congress. Fearful military misfortunes there were, with Pearl Harbor itself the most notable and hard to comprehend. Grounds for even a slight temporary loss of hope there never were, however--at any rate in the president's mind; and somewhow, his mind formed the minds of the overwhelming majority of other Americans who watched him in action in those years of hope."
Alsop and many others express fear that "those years of hope" are forever vanished. Certainly, with growing uncertainity over the outcome of critical events at home and abroad, there is reason to believe so. I often feel that way.
For now, though, put me down as a dissenter. From my admittedly isolated vantage point here, other signs are less gloomy. At the least, a nation that can examine its major past experiences as creatively as we are now doing can't be all washed up.