Tuesday, August 06, 2013

How Green Was My Port Clinton

A couple years ago, a friend and I decided to rent How Green Was My Valley because all we knew about it was that it beat Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for an Oscar some year during WWII. Helped along by the fact that neither of us has any pre-1990 roots in America that could help us contextualize how this film could possibly be thought good, no less great, we concluded that it was a heaping pile of nostalgic schlock. The basic plot was that life was great in Wales when everyone was a communitarian coal miner with no vowels and seven w's in his name and could bring up an entire family (poor, but honest, of course) of ruddy, un-voweled children to be future coal miners on his mining wages. But then came labor unrest! Managers exploit workers! Family and idyllic village rent asunder by union strife! Love crushed by scandal! Then everyone dies and the family and village fall apart and the party's over, with nothing left but the narrator's tender memories of his green valley. One review I came across at the time aptly summed up the film with the memorable re-titling, "How Wet Was My Hanky."

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?


Flavia said...

My mom rented this movie when I was about 12--I don't think she had seen it, either, but had heard her father go on and on about it.

I was pretty unmoved.

But I think your assessment is correct: that it's that era's winning contestant in the nostalgia sweepstakes, and only the specifics differ from our age's contestants. We all get older and change and move away--or we stay, but the place changes! We all have slightly different lives and values than our parents' generation--or we don't, but everyone else does! Etc.

And, yeah. I think we're all suckers for that, because we all feel some version of it--and if the details approximate the kind of details that matter to us, three hankies.

Withywindle said...

But sometimes the times do get worse ... Germany in 1650 wasn't what it was in 1600. And just because the Golden Age wasn't a trope, doesn't mean we're living in a time of decay. It's a difficult argument, of course: statistics and personal experience get tangled up so, and it's so difficult to say with any certainty how typical one's own experience is, how much it tells us about one's fellows.

Now, I'm all for arguing general decay, doom, and despair. But you can also say that the 1950s and 1960s were a uniquely good moment--the lack of economic competition from the outside world, a post-WWII social compact that spread economic gains more widely, a technological/manufacturing moment that relatively favored non-college educated labor, a cut-off in immigration that largely directed the benefits of employing cheap labor to migrants from the South, black and white. So one can say that we're just returning to normal, but that also means it's worse off than a very temporary and irreplicable Golden Age.

As for childhood, I would say there's a longstanding line of this Golden Age thought which takes the 50s Golden Age to consist of people going to work earlier, not being endless children.--that you start working as a teenager, full-time after high school, in a reasonably satisfying job. So you can detach the Golden Age from childish trappings.

I didn't even know that How Green Was My Valley was set in Wales. Or that it was about miners. I had a vague picture of a bucolic life in the Shenandoah Valley, which means I was completely ignorant of anything but the title.

Withywindle said...

"Just because the Golden Age is a trope doesn't mean we aren't living in a time of decay."

Miss Self-Important said...

Flavia: The internet strongly disagrees with your (and my) assessment.

Withy: But then Germany in 1800 was looking up again?

I don't think the Golden Age is childish or that its defenders wish to be children forever, just that this line of argument (HGWMV's, Putnam's) conflates golden-ness with childhood, always one's own childhood. The world looks rosier from that perspective, but what is meant by general decline when everyone can claim this about his own childhood?

So, for example, I could say the same of my own childhood - the 1990s were a uniquely good moment too for many people, but in ways different from the 1950s. And the children of the 1970s and 1980s could say the same of their own moments if they recall their childhoods as happy ones. Even as the industrial economy was declining, many new jobs were opening in tech, finance, medicine, education. Recreational travel became much more accessible. The suburbs grew and more people could buy houses. Childhood entertainment became its own market. Food options exploded. These changes make marks on childhoods in ways that other trends can go un-noticed, by children at least.

Contemporaneous misery also goes un-noticed by children, especially the misery of poverty, which children do not seem to feel unless it's brought to their attention. Even Putnam notes this, although he seems to think it's a mark of his special time that "we didn't feel poor." But I wonder if any child ever "feels poor" unless he is surrounded by noticeably richer children, and that is something he feels not as a mark of the times, but a mark of his own inadequacy. But where there is a general equality of poverty, it doesn't feel like things are bad (unless it's dire poverty). When I used to volunteer teach kids in an objectively poor part of DC, they never reported feeling poor. On the contrary, they'd tell me about how they volunteered at soup kitchens and felt bad for the homeless b/c those people are poor. Consider also this (wonderful) essay by Jean Elshtain about her childhood during the Depression. Things were not even so bad then! At least we had virtue! Childhood seems to come with its own cushions against misery, and when that padding is worn down, the hardness of life surfaces and appears as a new thing to everyone.

None of this is to say that things never change. They do. Trends like out-of-wedlock child-bearing are apparently real and troubling. Maybe growing inequality is real and troubling (I'm suspending judgment on this). But changes must be more complicated than simple decline or ascent, or it wouldn't be the case that people almost universally look upon their childhoods as happy, no matter when their childhoods took place.

Withywindle said...

Germany in 1800 was a hell of a lot better than Germany in 1650. Not quite so ducky by 1815; but nothing like so bad as 1650.

Some part of this argument turns on "people almost universally upon their childhoods as happy, no matter when their childhoods took place." I don't know how true this is. Isn't there a genre of "my childhood sucks" out there, to combat the "my childhood was wonderful" genre? I can think of literary evocations of horrible childhood--"They fuck you up, your mum and dad." When you say "people almost universally," how far back and in how many countries are you referring to?

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm referring to Americans, from the beginning (Ben Franklin?) on. We have always been great romanticizers of childhood. Even dour Henry Adams paints this kind of picture of his boyhood as far as I recall - the good old days of Quincy, Mass. The British are haters of childhood, a reflex that contains certain truths too, but different ones than those under discussion.

Americans do have some literary specimens of sucky childhood, but I can only think of two sorts: the first is the realist expose stuff from the late 19th/early 20th C. that is mainly about the hypothetical misery of other people's children, and the second is recent misery lit, which has no redeeming qualities, and presumes in any case that everyone else was having a happy childhood while the author was being beaten/maimed/starved/raped/killed, and that their unawareness of his suffering is the main crime at hand.

Withywindle said...

Hmm ... Frederick Douglass? And Abraham Lincoln is not exactly glowing, in his terse fashion:

But, if only from ignorance, I will presume you are generally correct.

Miss Self-Important said...

Douglass was writing a slave memoir. I don't think it would make sense to suggest one's childhood was fantastic in this context. But like misery lit, it requires a presumption that other people's, even most other people's childhoods are happy, and that some injustice takes place where such a childhood is denied. A parallel might be something like Steinbeck's childhoods, where the miserable childhood is deployed for the purposes of political agitation. As for the Lincoln bio, I don't really know what to say about this. It's not much of an account of childhood.

But on the broad point, consider, for comparison - Dickens vs. Twain on 19th C. childhood for the difference b/w English and American views. Or perhaps Louisa May Alcott, for children. Then, in the 20th C., maybe Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys" or Roald Dahl's Boy as against contemporaneous American depictions in both adult and children's books. Offhand, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn comes to mind as a major war-era book that does portray childhood as hard, but not sadistic as per the English, and still full of small joys in spite of trying circumstances. Or, sociologically, there is Tocqueville's account of the sturdiness and independence of American children, esp. the part about girls.

Withywindle said...

But the English do have a Golden Childhood genre too, no?

Miss Self-Important said...

Nothing comes to mind, but you would know better. All I know are Hardy and Austen from this period, and childhood is not particularly romantic for either of them, although it's usually not sadistic either. In Austen, childhood is neither full of adventure nor delight. At best, it's sedate and productive, and at worst, it's hard and mournful. (Mansfield Park comes to mind as offering a more detailed picture of childhood than the other Austen novels, which usually meet characters when they're already marrying age, and there, Fanny's childhood is tense and unhappy.)

Withywindle said...

Are we excluding children's literature?--I would think everything from E. Nesbit to Paddington had Golden Childhood elements. I guess I was thinking more that modern British commentators also think things were better in the 1950s and 1960s--before the collapse of (Tory) traditional values or (Labor) the welfare state. Not that I can name anyone off the top of my head. But I have a pronounced, imprecise impression that such exist.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't know where we put books aimed exclusively at young children. R.L. Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses would also fit your bill. But I think it's harder to portray childhood as grim to young children by the 19th C., although no holds barred on saying so to adults. That's why the Dickens vs. Twain comparison seems so striking.

Do the commentators think it was better b/c they associate it w/ their childhoods, or for other reasons? My point in this post is that generalized nostalgia seems to be tied for us to nostalgia for our own selves at age 10. But there can be other reasons to be nostalgic, and for times even before one's own life, which is technically what Golden Age is supposed to promote.

Maybe this is just a self-absorbed Baby Boomer tic. They've even ruined nostalgia!

Withywindle said...

It seemed to me that it was much the same as in the US, largely because the same things happened: erosion of family ties and decency, erosion of the welfare state, so the same sort of complaints from right and left on both sides of the Atlantic. In the British case, I do think there is an even more stark destruction of the old working class after World War II--an enormous surge from the working classes into the middle classes, and then a moral and economic dislocation of the remaining working classes after 1970 even more grim than in the United States. But largely a parallel phenomenon.

Miss Self-Important said...

So as I said, you can point to concrete demographic trends and lament, and you can point to the golden days of your own childhood, but I think the latter is a particular approach to the former which, while emotionally effective, is not very true.

Withywindle said...