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Time Essay: The Best of Times-1821? 1961? Today?

12 minute read

Nostalgia flowers naturally in worried times, which makes other eras seem better. But the contemporary fascination with nostalgia also reflects a different kind of judgment on our age. There is a discontent with the present, a foreboding of a plastic future, a looking back with longing to times that were—what? Simpler, happier, better? But were those times really better? The corny old movies, the Art Deco shapes, are now seen not critically but fondly, as shards and artifacts of times that were more sharply defined than ours (the Roaring Twenties, the Gay Nineties). Since such a view of the past is apt to be indulgent and sentimental, the nostalgia wave is hardly a fair test of past or present. A better test would be: When was the best time for most Americans to have been alive?

That is much different from asking when was the best time to have been among the rich, to have had plenty of servants, private railway cars and the seashore to oneself. It was better to have been richer earlier, when taxes were much lower, before there were so many other claimants to the best of everything. But when were the times best for most people?

Some periods are easily rejected. The Civil War, with the best of American youth dying fratricidally in the valleys of Virginia, goes out immediately; so does that war’s ugly aftermath, the Reconstruction. But out, too, go the romantic Gay Nineties, when in reality Europe’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were pouring through Ellis Island’s gates to clot the cities and the mill towns or to be herded into overcrowded tenements, where the only toilets were fetid sheds out in the dark alleys.

No, for most people the best time to have been alive in the U.S. has to be earlier than the last half of the 19th century. Or else later.

“America was promises,” Archibald MacLeish once sang. Those promises were easier to keep before the American invitation was issued wholesale all over Europe to meet the nation’s growing demand for labor. So consider as one candidate for the best of American tunes those earlier years before the Civil War, when the Republic was agrarian. The existence of slavery counts against that time, but in the Republic’s first days even many Southerners regarded slavery as “scaffolding” to be removed when the building of nationhood was complete.

Nine out of ten Americans lived on farms, grew their own corn and potatoes, made most of their own clothes. In the not-yet-crowded countryside and seashore, the woods were full of wild game and the waters of cod, carp, shad and salmon. Life was tough and dangerous but self-sufficient. What now seems amaz ing about this hardy era was the immense national feeling of self-confidence—the feeling, summed up in the phrase still imprinted on the back of every dollar bill, that America was a “new order of the ages.” Toward the impressive contemporary Europe of Beethoven, Hegel, Napoleon and Goethe, the rude frontiersman was patronizing: his own land was the democratic future, free of the Old World’s privileges and wars. “Every stroke of the ax and hoe,” Henry Adams wrote sardonically, “made him a capitalist and made gentlemen of his children.”

If one has to pick vintage years in this period, the early 1820s, “the era of good feelings,” will serve as well as any. The quarrels with Europe were over or at least muted. Independence had survived its first trials. Yet even in that Arcadia there were dark corners. To think of how many died in childbirth or lived sickly lives, to think of diseases wrongly diagnosed or wrongly treated, is to recognize the importance of health in judging the well-being of a people. The nearer one gets to today the better health care gets.

Despite a relatively low birth rate, the U.S. population has doubled in the past 50 years. Improved health care makes the difference. In 1900 in New York City, a 70-year-old man had a better chance than a newborn infant of surviving the next year. As Dr. Walsh McDermott, recently retired professor of public health at Cornell University Medical College, says, the two great triumphs of modern health care have been 1) the victory over the “pneumonia-diarrhea complex” that once caused half the tragic wastage of early deaths, and 2) the dramatic gains since antibiotics were introduced in 1937. Dr. McDermott can remember growing up in New Haven when every respectable undertaker had two funeral hearses—the familiar black one and a white hearse for children.

To judge by such tangible measurements as health, the best of times for most people would thus he within the lifetime of people living today—that is, sometime during the 20th century. But when precisely? Here the answer becomes more subjective, a parlor game in which anyone is entitled to his own answer, so long as he remembers that the criterion is not just when his own fortunes or his own prospects were most favorable. In their own lives people are apt to choose, in retrospect, their young adult years. Perhaps this is why some people even fondly remember the Great Depression. They argue that material luxury is not the only test of wellbeing. Kenneth Clark, the black educator and psychologist, recalls that in the Depression, “for the first time there was equality in deprivation. Suffering was democratic.” He remembers, too, the ferment, the “curious social and political optimism.” For others, the more lasting picture of the Depression will be those haunting photographs of the gaunt faces of undernourished sharecroppers.

Another way to judge an age’s well-being is to examine its shared optimism about the future. Consider that moment of new beginnings in 1945-46, when millions of veterans returned home from World War II to resume peacetime living. For many, the G.I. Bill made possible the previously elusive dream of a college education. The economy did not suffer the grave postwar slump that experts had forecast. Despite gathering doubts about Russia, most Americans had an optimistic faith in the twin security of their nuclear monopoly and the new United Nations, where the big powers would work together to guarantee the peace. That was a brief, sunny interval indeed. Just a year later came the cold war.

A better case can be made for the late ’50s and early ’60s. Communism no longer seemed on the ascendant throughout the world, despite such triumphs as Sputnik. Blacks were winning their civil rights. The American genius for production was turning out technologically dazzling goods and mountainous surpluses of food. The campuses were so complacently quiet that people spoke of the Silent Generation. That age turned sour around the end of 1963, with the assassination of John Kennedy and the deepening involvement in Viet Nam. After that, it became harder to cheer a society divided by riots, split by generations, alarmed by drugs and afraid to walk city streets at night.

But recent years also have their defenders as a good time to be alive in. The man who argues their case most aggressively is Ben J. Wattenberg, who in his book The Real America draws his proofs from Ihe 1970 census. He cites statistics that show more than half the employed working in white-collar jobs, which are more pleasant and less demanding than the production line. Between 1950 and 1973, real income—even discounting for inflation—doubled, and from 1959 to 1969 the numbers of people officially listed as living in poverty were cut almost in half. For the first time, a majority of blacks (judging by income, occupation and education) were in the middle class. Wattenberg concluded that people are really much better off than they think they are, and laid the blame for widespread discontent on an increasing “psychology of entitlement” (college education for the kids, a satisfying job for oneself). So if—despite electric dishwashers to replace poorly paid domestics, and second cars and second homes for millions—people are still dissatisfied, the answer is that history records no instance of a people made happier by the knowledge that they are part of a comforting statistic.

For many, of course, the statistics themselves are small comfort. For blacks and other minorities in particular, the signs of an improving economy seem to bring no improvement in their own high unemployment. Even for Americans secure in their jobs, inflation diminishes their present income and makes the future more worrisome.

But the contemporary sense of times awry goes deeper than economics. Potomac Associates, a research organization, measures something it calls the “ladder of life”; in its most recent test, reported in December, Americans on the average thought themselves better off now than they were five years ago and expected to be personally still better off in the future. Yet these same Americans expressed a sharp decline in confidence in their country’s future. Political studies show that in every election since 1958, the “most politically estranged” voters have been those over 50; the world simply became loo much for them. Surprisingly, in the most recent presidential election the next most alienated group was the one from 21 to 24 years old.

A more intangible quantity has thus to be reckoned in a period’s sense of its own wellbeing. People speak about a declining “quality of life.” Those who are discontented with the present are apt to have selective memories of a better past and forget, what went with it— the petty tyrannies that were possible in office, factory or domestic household, where one could lose his job at an employer’s whim and could count on few if any benefits if given the sack. But those who in their own lives have since gained by shorter hours, better quarters, safer conditions and coffee breaks have also lost something when they in turn become customers and consumers: a decline in store manners and helpfulness, clothes and articles more carelessly made, service and workmanship less dependable. One man’s easier life is bought with another’s frustrations.

More than the daily round of frustrations, what distresses many people about the present is a nagging feeling of things out of control, a world approaching with too many people in it and too few resources to goaround, an absence of faith that solutions are possible or leaders will be found to provide them. Rarely has this feeling been described with such elegant despair as that expressed by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France: “The present world crisis . . . is not just a passing perturbation but in reality represents a permanent change. If we examine the major graphic curves that are drawn for the future by the phenomena of our times, you see that all of these curves lead to catastrophe.”

In American terms, however, some of the curves are not worsening. The chances of nuclear war with Russia decline. Domestic politics is less edgy and disputes in U.S. society less disruptive than they were in the late ’60s.

Some of the country’s most conspicuous problems, in fact, stem not from worsening conditions but from an increased awareness of them. Injustices that earlier generations once silently accepted now have articulate spokesmen decrying them. Yet oddly enough these same people who work so hard for change take so little just satisfaction in the gains that have been made that they can hardly be called happy warriors. They even exaggerate their own pessimism out of a fear that public willingness to overcome obstacles would otherwise slacken. The result is that few times will pass into history like ours, having done so little to insist on its own merits.

Any past period that people somehow survived seems in retrospect more manageable than today’s open-ended uncertainties. Daniel J. Boorstin, the social historian, believes that “the contemporary time is always the best time to live. It is a mistake to say the best age is one without problems.”

If today is not the worst of times, it is not often seen as the best either, even by those who wear “Smile” buttons and say “Have a happy day.” Perhaps an opinion poll would show that for most Americans, the vintage years may now seem—in the benign middle distance of memory—to have been at the turn of the ’60s; Then hope in the direction of events seemed more buoyant and less under challenge than now. If one thinks only of civic well-being and its later decline, that period does indeed seem the best of times.

But there have been gains since then, as well as losses. Many women feel “liberated” from what they put up with then, though whether this is a gain in contentment and independence would be hard to measure. Anyone who would dare to argue that, all things considered, right now might indeed be the best time for most Americans will have to survive a barrage of catcalls. If nothing else, this is a disgruntled age. So anyone making the case for today must insist that all the returns are nol yet in, and must assume that some trends will continue favorably and that some prophesied disastrous crisis can be averted. He must also assume that people will come to see their own struggles differently and in retrospect discover that their efforts were more successful and worthwhile than they realized. The case for today as the best of times for most people also rests on the ongoing progress of those minority millions who are gradually finding opportunities, and an acceptance denied their parents in offices, restaurants, universities.

So the final answer to the question does involve large-scale subjectivity. Many people once thought of themselves as living in a country that was generally right, even though their own circumstances could stand improvement, which would come about by their own efforts. Today it is the widespread doubt about the country itself—its political structure, its place in the world, its present drift—that most mocks the “Smile” buttons. The matter with our times is not so much a question of impossibilities but of complexities that can be faced if only public trust and will are restored.

Thomas Griffith

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