This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
“Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit; but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now.”
So began “The Prophecy,” a mock futuristic fantasy set after some great cold war cataclysm, which several members of my high school graduating class collaborated on back in 1962. It was, of course, for our yearbook and made fun of the class, A to Z. It was also a classic document of the moment, written by representatives of the first generation of “teenagers” who, crouching under their school desks as the sirens of an atomic-attack drill howled outside, imagined that no one in their world might make it.
“First of all, let me introduce myself,” “I” continued. “I am Thomas M. Engelhardt, world renowned historian of the late twentieth century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account. After the great invasion, I was maintaining a peaceful, contented existence in the private shelter I had built, and was completing the ninth and final volume of my masterpiece, The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century…”
Okay, so they had me pegged. Not only, in those years, did I read whatever post-nuclear pulp fiction I could get my hands on–you know, the kind with landscapes filled with atomic mutants and survivalist communities–but I was a Civil War nut. Past disasters and future catastrophes, and somehow it all made sense.
I was, in fact, a nut for the American past generally, in part, I suspect, because the familial past wasn’t available. My parents, typically enough for second and third generation Americans, were in flight from their own pasts, from all that not-so-distant squalor and unhappiness, or just plain foreign-ness, much the way, once upon a time, so many other Americans had fled small towns for the Big City.
My father rarely spoke of his own life–his parents, his childhood, his years growing up, the Great Depression, and especially his experiences in World War II (and in this he was typical of a generation that did not come home from the grimmest of wars with the idea that they were “the greatest”). My mother acted as if her past were the proverbial blank slate. She told but three stories from her childhood: one in which she broke her nose in a softball game, another in which she jumped out of a second-story window to test whether a sheet would work as a parachute, and a third in which an evil but rich uncle humiliated her loveable but ne’er-do-well inventor of a father.
Perhaps that very past-less-ness left me with a yen for roots, which I then found in the sole place available: American history. Toss in the time an only child had in a room still surprisingly bare of entertainment, and it was hardly surprising that, as early as third grade, I started devouring the biographies–hagiographies actually–of assorted American heroes. They were little books focusing on Kit Carson or Clara Barton with memorably orange covers.