Nostalgia, noun: A sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.
Rose-colored glasses, noun: A cheerful or optimistic view of things, usually without valid basis.
People often speak of “the good old days,” a phrase that conjures hazy, softly lit images of some vaguely defined place where life was easier to understand and easier to cope with than it is now. People long to retreat to the safety and comfort of the “good old days” (also know as “back then”) when they feel overwhelmed by the scary, unpredictable, ever-changing chaos of now.
But were the good old days as blissful as people (mis)remember? Are those days easier to locate in our imaginations than they are to locate on a map or a calendar? Every time someone asks me what time period I’d like to travel back to, the Billy Joel lyric, “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems,” pops into my head. But I’m an admitted cynic. Maybe I’m too hard on “back then”. Maybe it really was a kinder, gentler time.
Or, maybe not.
I’m reading Cop Hater, the first of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Published in 1956, the first chapter (the fourth page of the book, in my edition) ends with a graphic description of a man being shot in the back of the head. By graphic, I mean don’t read the part about what happens to his face while you’re eating. Hardly “Leave it to Beaver” stuff.
Today, I researched the history of Depression-era Chicago. I subscribe to Newspapers.com, which gives me access to digital copies of umpteen (>11,000) newspapers dating back to the 1700s. I pulled up the September 15, 1935 Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. After reading about Mussolini’s war on Ethiopia and wondering how expensive a $125 coat was in today’s money, I turned to the comics. A half-dozen pages of Depression-era entertainment. I watched Dick Tracy discover Toby had been blinded by tear gas and cringed at the horrid stereotypes of Chinese and Mexican men depicted in “Terry and the Pirates” and “Little Joe”. Then I came upon “Little Orphan Annie”. You know, the adorable moppet with the auburn curls and red dress and weird eyes? The one who sings about sunrises to come? Well, in 1935 she wasn’t singing about her hard knocks life. Annie was 100% street. In twelve panels, she hangs a man by the neck, threatens to “whittle” him with her “frog-sticker” of a knife (the blade’s as long as her forearm), and threatens to slice someone’s gizzard. “Come on out and I’ll slice yer gizzard for yuh,” she calls to the unseen being lurking in an alley’s darkness. Luckily, it’s only Sandy the dog, who, we’re relieved to discover, isn’t dead after all. Which is probably more than we can say about the man (another Chinese caricature) she left hanging by the neck three panels ago. Moppet, indeed. Little Orphan Annie will cut you. So much for nostalgia.
Which raises the issue of how writers of historical fiction should handle the ugly parts of the not-as-good-as-you-think-they-were old days. Should they gloss over the difficult bits? Or should they go for historic verisimilitude (note I don’t say accuracy) and “tell it like it (supposedly) was,” warts and relentless brutality and casual bigotry and all?
Before you say, “yes,” stop and consider. Are people advocating for the “truth” as a form of nostalgia of a darker sort? A nostalgia for an imagined “back then” when they could display their bigotry without censure. A nostalgia described with code phrases like “that’s just the way it was” or “everyone used words like that” or “those words/images/actions didn’t mean the same thing back then”. That kind of nostalgia is as bunk as the rosy kind. Casual bigotry may have been common, but it was never benign to the people who were its targets. It may seem that way because its targets were afraid to complain and/or because the bigots ignored their complaints.
Take Gone With the Wind, the 1939 paean to the mythological Lost Cause. Everyone loves GWTW now and everyone loved it then. Right?
Nope. African Americans protested GWTW at theaters that screened the movie. Getty Images has a photo taken on January 1, 1940 in front of a movie theater in Chicago, Illinois. The marquee in the background proclaims, “Continuous daytime showing.” A protestor’s sign in the foreground proclaims, “GWTW is a blow at American Democracy”. In another photo, a protestor holds a sign that reads, “A Dollar and Ten Gone with the Wind.” In a third photo, a sign reads, “You’d be sweet, too, under a whip.” Add to that Clark Gable’s threatened boycott of the Atlanta premiere when he learned that friend, Hattie McDaniel, and the other black cast members couldn’t attend and the NAACP’s protest that got the most racially offensive scenes deleted (I shudder to think what got cut.) and it seems that not everyone was cool with bigotry “back then”. So much for nostalgia.
Where does that leave writers grappling with how to fictionalize history? Keep on the rose-colored glasses and portray the past as a soft-focused, sweet fantasy land where the cares and dangers of modern life can’t intrude? Or put all the ugly out there without comment, smug in the belief that the “real picture” has been captured on the page? How about a third option? Maybe don’t sugar coat “back then” but don’t pretend the ugly parts weren’t as hurtful and damaging as they are today. Maybe acknowledge the pain suffered by those on the receiving end of ugly and acknowledge the pain may have been hidden or ignored or suppressed at the time for reasons related to who had power and who didn’t.
Writers shouldn’t avoid reaching “back in the day” for material. The past is a rich source for storytelling. While nostalgia may be humbug, history has a lot to teach us.
How do you think historical fiction should portray the past? Through a sweet filter? Or no filter at all? Or with a deep dive to try to understand what events meant to all involved parties? Leave a comment on the blog or join the discussion on Facebook