An end to the end to the end of innocence

David Reid

September 02, 1992|By David Reid

THE summer of 1992 looks to be nobody's idea of an age of innocence. Millions, including Ross Perot's abandoned legions, find themselves in the plight of the little girl in the Thurber cartoon who is told: "Well, I'm disenchanted, too. We're all disenchanted."

Still, even this season of discontent will likely be remembered as an age of bright illusions. In America, as a shrewd Englishman, Godfrey Hodgson, writes, "By the time children graduate from high school, the year in which they went into first grade seems as remote as some prehistoric age of innocence: before the Fall."

It is peculiarly of the American historical imagination to believe that we, as a people -- Huck Finns, all -- have always just awakened, the day before yesterday, from an age of innocence. Why even George Bush in his acceptance speech waxed nostalgic: "I heard President Ford tonight. I served in Congress 22 years ago under him. And back then, we cooperated; we didn't get personal. We put the people above everything else."

Looking backward, we find many decades that supposedly sneaked behind the haystack.

How it would have amazed John F. Kennedy, that worldly man, to learn he had presided over an age of innocence! Did he not boast in his Inaugural Address of belonging to a new generation "tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace"? Yet when the hubbub over Oliver Stone's film "JFK" was in full roar, the point on which almost everybody could agree was that the assassination marked, as Time said, "the end of American innocence."

It is particularly paradoxical that popular mythology remembers the '50s as a daffy daze: tail fins, hula hoops, young Elvis. According to the critic Leslie Fiedler, writing in the Partisan Review at the time, the journal's subscribers had lost their last illusions on March 22, 1951, the day Alger Hiss, who supposedly spied, went to jail. "American liberalism," Fiedler said, "has been reluctant to leave the garden of illusion; but it can dally no longer: The age of innocence is dead."

David McCullough's biography of Harry S Truman is high on the best-seller list, borne on a wave of nostalgia for that plain-spoken president and a postwar era of supposed pristine promise. With salt-of-the-earth senators like Arthur Vandenberg and Leverett Saltonstall on the Hill in the 1940s, it was, we like to think, a time when politicians told the truth. I.F. Stone remembered the White House palace guard differently. "The Truman era was the era of the moocher. The place was full of Wimpys who could be had for a hamburger."

Vice President Dan Quayle's recreational reading for the past four years supposedly has been "Modern Times" by Paul Johnson, the British writer who celebrates America in the '20s as "The Last Arcadia," a demi-paradise governed by wise, far-seeing statesmen. Well, the critic Edmund Wilson, who was around, wrote that it was a "drunken fiesta."

In 1959, unaware he was living in a time of illusions, the historian Henry F. May published a study of 1912 to 1917 called "The End of American Innocence." With perfect precision, Eliot Asinof, another historian, pinpoints the end two years later. In his 1990 book, "1919: America's Loss of Innocence," he attributes it partly to Prohibition, the Red scare and the Black Sox scandal.

Disneyland hypes the years leading up to World War I as our official age of innocence -- the "Good Years," as writer Walter Lord called them, of straw boaters, barbershop quartets and Model T's. Expunged from this mythology are memories of sweatshops, child labor, the extension of Jim Crow and Calcutta-like conditions in city slums.

The novelist Edith Wharton turned to the phrase in "The Age of Innocence," a novel about New York City in the 1870s that she published in 1920. She was too canny to imagine it was anything of the sort: It was a time dominated by political scandals, Wall Street sleaze and seething populism -- in short, it mirrored ours eerily.

If 1992's disenchantment is not the end of innocence, then in Ernest Hemingway's ominous phrase, it is the end of something.

David Reid edited "Sex, Death and God in L.A.," a collection of essays.

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