This week I wound up my Generations in Film class at the Naval War College, a class I have now taught for a dozen years, including one at Williams College. It is based mostly on movies (and has also been boiled down, in effect, to a two-hour presentation of film clips that I have not yet had an opportunity to give in public.) It includes readings as well, however, and I sent around some before the last meeting--a collection that I had been trying to complete for several years. The four generational archetypes around which generational theory revolves are, as many of you know, Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists. Today they are represented by Boomers (Prophets), born in the wake of a great Crisis; Gen Xers (Nomads), born during an Awakening; the few remaining GIs (Heroes), along with the Millennial generation, born from about 1982 until sometime early in the last decade; and artists, born during the great crises, including both the Silent generation (born 1926-42) and the new Homeland generation, which began appearing on the scene some unspecified number of years ago.
I shall now post what I came up with, with brief explanations, as a kind of generational primer. In each case I was looking for an elderly person--as it happens they are all men, although I would love to see some one come up with corresponding women--reflecting on their lives and expressing some of the essence of their archetype. (It is rather extraordinary, by the way--and even Strauss and Howe did not realize this on their own--that the four heads on Mt. Rushmore represent the four archetypes: the Nomad Washington, the Hero Jefferson, the Prophet Lincoln, and the Artist Theodore Roosevelt. As a kid I always wondered what Theodore Roosevelt was doing there; now I know.)
Mark Twain (1835-1910) was a Nomad, belonging to the Gilded generation Here, just two years before his death, he describes a conversation with a popular novelist of his day, Elinor Glyn, then 34, a British woman on the Artist-Prophet cusp who was a pioneer in modern women’s fiction. As you will see, this passage is less a reflection on his own life than a summary of accumulated Nomadic wisdom. Twain had grown up during the Second Great Awakening, a time like the 1960s, when grown-ups seemed to be going crazy in all sorts of ways. Nomads with such backgrounds become aware of the need for restraint--the reason that today's Gen Xers, whose parents often went crazy in their youth, have become such protective parents. (I apologize for the quality of this text--it was an image and this was the best I could do.)
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) belonged to the first Hero generation of our national life, the Republicans. By the spring of 1826 he was one of three remaining signers of the Declaration of Independence and received an invitation to celebrate the anniversary in Washington. This was his reply. Like GIs reminiscing about the years from 1941 to 1965 or so, he looked back with justifiable pride on the extraordinary achievement of his generation in its younger days.
Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman
Monticello, June 24, 1826
Respected Sir, -- The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Henry Clay (1777-1852) was, along with his bitter rival Andrew Jackson, the most distinguished member of the Compromise generation, of the Artist Archetype. Ten years old at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, he held nearly every major national office except the Presidency (for which he was defeated) and spent most of his career in the Senate. He was the idol of many Transcendentals (Prophets), including Abraham Lincoln, and hoped slavery might be abolished through gradual emancipation with compensation, although he came from Kentucky and owned slaves himself. In 1850 the break-up of the union threatened over the question of whether California would be admitted as a free state. Here is one of the critical speeches he gave in support of the Compromise of 1850, which secured its admission in return for certain concessions to the South and postponed the Civil War for eleven more years. Nearing the end of his life, he was making a last vain attempt to preserve the great achievement of his childhood. I cannot read this without thihking of the speeches on health care that Clay's fellow Artist Ted Kennedy did not get to make last year and this.
“It has been objected against this measure that it is a compromise. It has been said that it is a compromise of principle, or of a principle. Mr. President, what is a compromise? It is a work of mutual concession - an agreement in which there are reciprocal stipulations - a work in which, for the sake of peace and concord, one party abates his extreme demands in consideration of an abatement of extreme demands by the other party: it is a measure of mutual concession - a measure of mutual sacrifice. Undoubtedly, Mr. President, in all such measures of compromise, one party would be very glad to get what he wants, and reject what he does not desire but which the other party wants. But when he comes to reflect that, from the nature of the government and its operations, and from those with whom he is dealing, it is necessary upon his part, in order to secure what he wants, to grant something to the other side, he should be reconciled to the concession which he has made in consequence of the concession which he is to receive, if there is no great principle involved, such as a violation of the Constitution of the United States. I admit that such a compromise as that ought never to be sanctioned or adopted. But I now call upon any senator in his place to point out from the beginning to the end, from California to New Mexico, a solitary provision in this bill which is violative of the Constitution of the United States.
“The responsibility of this great measure passes from the hands of the committee, and from my hands. They know, and I know, that it is an awful and tremendous responsibility. I hope that you will meet it with a just conception and a true appreciation of its magnitude, and the magnitude of the consequences that may ensue from your decision one way or the other. The alternatives, I fear, which the measure presents, are concord and increased discord. . . I believe from the bottom of my soul that the measure is the reunion of this Union. I believe it is the dove of peace, which, taking its aerial flight from the dome of the Capitol, carries the glad tidings of assured peace and restored harmony to all the remotest extremities of this distracted land. I believe that it will be attended with all these beneficent effects. And now let us discard all resentment, all passions, all petty jealousies, all personal desires, all love of place, all hankerings after the gilded crumbs which fall from the table of power. Let us forget popular fears, from whatever quarter they may spring. Let us go to the limpid fountain of unadulterated patriotism, and, performing a solemn lustration, return divested of all selfish, sinister, and sordid impurities, and think alone of our God, our country, our consciences, and our glorious Union - that Union without which we shall be torn into hostile fragments, and sooner or later become the victims of military despotism or foreign domination...
“Let us look to our country and our cause, elevate ourselves to the dignity of pure and disinterested patriots, and save our country from all impending dangers. What if, in the march of this nation to greatness and power, we should be buried beneath the wheels that propel it onward! ...
“I call upon all the South. Sir, we have had hard words, bitter words, bitter thoughts, unpleasant feelings toward each other in the progress of this great measure. Let us forget them. Let us sacrifice these feelings. Let us go to the altar of our country and swear, as the oath was taken of old, that we will stand by her; that we will support her; that we will uphold her Constitution; that we will preserve her union; and that we will pass this great, comprehensive, and healing system of measures, which will hush all the jarring elements and bring peace and tranquillity to our homes.
“Let me, Mr. President, in conclusion, say that the most disastrous consequences would occur, in my opinion, were we to go home, doing nothing to satisfy and tranquillize the country upon these great questions. What will be the judgment of mankind, what the judgment of that portion of mankind who are looking upon the progress of this scheme of self-government as being that which holds the highest hopes and expectations of amelioratirig the condition of mankind - what will their judgment be? Will not all the monarchs of the Old World pronounce our glorious republic a disgraceful failure? Will you go home and leave all in disorder and confusion - all unsettled-all open? The contentions and agitations of the past will be increased and augmented by the agitations resulting from our neglect to decide them.
“Sir, we shall stand condemned by all human judgment below, and of that above it is not for me to speak. We shall stand condemned in our own consciences, by our own constituents, and by our own country. The measure may be defeated. I have been aware that its passage for many days was not absolutely certain. ...But, if defeated, it will be a triumph of ultraism and impracticability-a triumph of a most extraordinary conjunction of extremes; a victory won by abolitionism; a victory achieved by freesoilism; a victory of discord and agitation over peace and tranquillity; and I pray to Almighty God that it may not, in consequence of the inauspicious result, lead to the most unhappy and disastrous consequences to our beloved country.”
There are few people I never knew to whom I feel closer than W. E. B. Dubois (1868-1963), who was, in word and deed, one of the outstanding representatives of the Missionary Generation. Born in western Massachusetts, he received both a B.A. and Ph.D from Harvard, becoming the first black American to achieve the latter distinction. A brilliant historian, he was also one of the founders and a long-time leader of the NAACP, and the first civil rights leader to advocate full racial equality. (Dubois and I do share one experience: having written major works of American history which our leading professional journal, the American Historical Review, declined to review in their pages, in both cases for reasons of ideological prejudice.) Sadly, he became embittered by slow racial progress and became a Communist in the 1950s, eventually emigrating to Ghana, where he died in August 1963, literally on the eve of the March on Washington. The following remarks were delivered at a 70th birthday celebration for him in 1938, and illustrate the profound truth that the best Prophets have, more than anything else, a gift for life.
“I have been favored among the majority of men in never being compelled to earn my bread and butter by doing work that was uninteresting or which I did not enjoy or of the sort in which I did not find my greatest life interest. This rendered me so content in my vocation that I seldom thought about salary or haggled over it. . .I insist that regardless of income, work worth while which one wants to do as compared with highly paid drudgery is exactly the difference between heaven and hell.
“I am especially glad of the divine gift of laughter; it has made the world human and lovable, despite all its pain and wrong. I am glad that the partial Puritanism of my upbringing has never made me afraid of life. I have lived completely, testing every normal appetite, feasting on sunset, sea and hill, and enjoying wine, women and song. I have seen the face of beauty from the Grand Canyon to the great Wall of China; from the Alps to Lake Baikal; from the African bush to the Venus of Milo.
“Perhaps above all I am proud of a straightforward clearness of reason, in part a gift of the gods, but also to no little degree due to scientific training and inner discipline. By means of this I have met life face to face, I have loved a fight and I have realized that Love is God and Work is His prophet; that His ministers are Age and Death.
“This makes it the more incomprehensible for me to see persons quite panic-stricken at the approach of their thirtieth birthday and prepared for dissolution at forty. Few of my friends have openly celebrated their fiftieth birthdays, and near none their sixtieth. Of course, one sees some reasons: the disappointment at meager accomplishment which all of us to some extent share; the haunting shadow of possible decline; the fear of death. I have been fortunate in having health and wise in keeping it. I have never shared what seems to me the essentially childish desire to live forever. Life has its pain and evil—its bitter disappointments; but I like a good novel and in healthful length of days, there is infinite joy in seeing the World, the most interesting of continued stories, unfold, even though one misses THE END.”