Whatever may have been the appeal of the movie in the '40s (and you're welcome to enlighten me on this point, old and historian readers), it's unclear to me what attractions it retains in the present. The story is grounded in the view that being a coal miner is extremely fulfilling and universally desirable, and would that we could all be coal miners in the unpronounceable valleys of southern Wales, and then the rest of our lives would simply fall into place. The only thing stopping us is the vague but nefarious economic forces that were the undoing of the main character's little town. But watch it in the present, and you'll get to the scene where the main character turns down a university scholarship to carry on his family's legacy of coal mining, and you'll think, "No, wrong. Bad idea. Reverse, reverse!"
But when I read things like Robert Putnam's NYT op-ed about the disintegration of his hometown of Port Clinton, OH, I see how people can still claim to love this film. How green was Putnam's Port Clinton, circa 1959? It was full of happy families - poor, but honest. Everyone did well in school, and then either went on to college, or to its equivalent - high-paid industrial wage labor. Rich got along with poor. Labor got along with management. White got along with black, sort of. Pretty green stuff, if you ask me. And now? Cue the ending of the How Green Was My Valley, except with the toxic Standard Products plant taking the place of the polluted coal mine.
America, unlike Wales, is my country, so I can't help but feel melancholy about the decline of the Rust Belt. But what's Putnam really saying that's different from the diffuse lament of How Green Was My Valley?
The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” Everyone in my parents’ generation thought of J as one of “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R’s existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as “our kid.”Just like southern Wales, Port Clinton was green back when times were good and Americans really cared about each other, which also happened to coincide with the time when the author of this tale was a child. Then times got worse and they stopped caring, just when the author grew up and realized the world was harder and darker than he thought. But the official culprit is vague but nefarious economic forces that we can neither predict nor control. And what's the solution? More caring, and perhaps more childhood. But if things have only been getting worse since 1959, I wonder why Putnam's account of his childhood sounds so much like the way I'd narrate my own, or how his own children and grandchildren have lived to report the same rosy childhoods elsewhere in America. I also wonder about this selective romanticism of the poverty of the past - it was so much better to be poor back then. Back then, we were poor but honest, now we are poor but pathological. Don't we tell this story over and over, adapted to whatever moment we inhabit, about whatever status quo was achieved when we were 10 years old? For the narrator of the movie, that was the world before labor unrest. For Putnam, organized labor is part of the delicate balance. For his children perhaps, that whole question is over and done with and some new one takes its place. How green was my youth; how dim is my twilight?