“Mankind had suddenly unmasked and shown itself for what it was–still only a precocious child…”

“…And the picture rose in his mind of a child, standing there of giant’s size with dangerous playthings in its hands, and boastfully declaring, ‘I can thunder over the earth, dive in the ocean, soar on the clouds!  I can shiver to atoms a mountain, I can drench whole lands with blood!  I can look up and laugh at God!'”

The Great War has come.  I’d thought it was a non-factor in the book (which thus far made no mention of what year it was) because it didn’t concern these people in their private lives, far away from the battle…but no, Roger picked up the paper, July 30, 1914, and now everything has changed.  The petty childishness of the family (commented on before) is now dwarfed, in Roger’s eyes, by the childishness of the human race.  Seeing, as I do, from the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is hard not to read a phrase like “I can shiver to atoms a mountain” and not feel Roger (and Ernest Poole, who conceived of him) eerily looking through time to the horrors of the mushroom cloud.

The war and private tragedy are combining to crush this little family that I have come to care about (even though their weaknesses are on full display…perhaps never more so than now in the first months of the war).  It’s hard to read this book in context–I look at a passage like Roger’s watching his young grandchildren and asking himself what kind of world will be left, asking himself if they can escape war and poverty.  And I cannot help but think that George and Elizabeth will be young and married when the market crashes.  They will raise children in the Great Depression only to see their sons go off to Normandy’s beaches or fly to their deaths in the Coral Sea, to see their daughters tend Victory Gardens and dance at the USO and pray their loved one returns safely home.  The century ahead, which Roger looks to with hope–hope that it will prove to be all that the dreams of progress promise it will be–is hard to see in that light.  But maybe I’m making the 20th Century out to be more grim than it truly was–Roger was too early to understand it, and I was too late.

As the family pulls together (and not easily) to survive the winter of 1914-1915, Deborah (the idealist school principal) turns to her father and says “Every nation at war is doing it, Dad–become like one big family–with everyone helping, doing his share.  Must a nation be at war to do that?  Can’t we be brothers without the guns?”

Can’t we, indeed.  I wonder.  It seems like fear is all that speaks to our hearts in a voice loud enough to bring us together.  Is Deborah too idealistic…can anyone point to a time where people pulled together without the threat of violence (if not war)?  And if not, what does that say about humanity?  I’m near the end, now: the next post will probably be my review of His Family.  Whether or not I can find an answer that satisfies me, I hope I can find Ernest Poole’s–he wrote this before the war had ended.  What did he see in their future?

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6 comments on ““Mankind had suddenly unmasked and shown itself for what it was–still only a precocious child…”

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    You write beautifully James, and delve so deeply as well. I already know I’m going to enjoy this blog.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Aw, shucks. (Or maybe “Pshaw!” as Roger Gale would say.) Thanks, Bonnie! I enjoy writing it (so far) and am glad to see so many folks looking in to follow the progress.

  2. bakerlady says:

    Just a note re: fear being the driving force that brings us together.

    I think it’s less about fear, and more about loss. We see others struggling with destruction in their lives (property, loved ones, security) and it touches an innate desire to fill the void. Our lives in general are so self-absorbed, it seems only when we are touched by the suffering of another do we react with an outpouring of support. War is a loss of many things on a massive scale so this coming together is more obvious, but you see it other times too. Look around at the faces in church next Sunday – you come together and create family there every week.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      That’s a good insight, and an encouraging one. Faith does have that power (although I suppose some could ask, and reasonably so, how much faith stems from fear and loss). Deborah, though, asks if nations can come together in that way, and I’m not sure–historically, even nations where people share a relatively common faith don’t strike me as terribly good at unifying outside of crises. But maybe worrying about things on that global a scale is too great a task–maybe considering how communities (communities of faith, communities of culture or even of class) unite for the common good is enough. And the more I think about it, the more I’m unsure that it’s awful that crises bring out our strongest unifying force…when could we need it more? I just feel the frustration at times when I consider that we allow petty conflicts to divide us so much of the time.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Hi, James. I finished ‘His Family’ last night and am happy I read it. Poole did a great job, I thought, giving me a glimpse into the thought-meanderings of an older, middle-class white man from this era. Just when I thought that it was Poole himself who actually felt this way (about women, about immigrants, etc.), and was just revealing this, unwittingly, through Roger, he’d share another character’s viewpoint eloquently enough that I wondered if Poole was just skillfully revealing both the grand and the petty about this cross-section of the world he was writing about. I never could decide.

    Just when I would start to find the story charming, I’d get a dash of irritating “ism” (pick your “ism” with this one… ), and then it would seem as if there was character growth and I would find myself lulled and charmed again, thinking Poole clever to keep me wondering.

    In reference to your question above, “It seems like fear is all that speaks to our hearts in a voice loud enough to bring us together. Is Deborah too idealistic…can anyone point to a time where people pulled together without the threat of violence (if not war)? And if not, what does that say about humanity?”, I wonder if you’ve ever read ‘The Chalice and The Blade’ by Riane Eisler? What’s especially interesting about a question like yours is that its answer depends, in part, not only on how one interprets earliest history (i.e. as hinted at by something like Lascaux cave art, for example), but how much, and what kind of, history we’re even aware of. Like imposing architecture and monuments that last because of their material (so that while we know little of the more impermanent structures, that doesn’t mean they were not a large part of life during their day), what we’re often taught about in school (at least elementary through high school) are the large, violent conflicts, the epic deeds. Perhaps even like dark matter, which we suspect is there and can even see evidence of _when we look_, there may be a whole lot of examples of people pulling together without the threat of violence, and we just don’t see those examples, and most of us don’t tell or hear stories about them, either.

    Hmm. I had better sign off now, as my tendency toward ball-of-snakes writing is exacerbated by sleepiness. I’ve got The Magnificent Ambersons in hand and will begin that in a day or so, to let Poole’s story mellow in my mind first.

    Cheers!
    Jennifer

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Excellent to hear your update, Jennifer! I’m glad it went well for you–in all honesty, this is a novel I still look back on fondly, even though I acknowledge its faults freely.

      It is a sort of back and forth–Poole doesn’t develop the characters as much as he could, and there’s certainly a preachiness to certain sections. But it is charming, isn’t it? I’m glad you thought so too.

      I haven’t read The Chalice and The Blade. You do raise a good point–as someone who studied history formally for a long while, and remains fairly interested in and engaged with it, I can certainly acknowledge that a lot of what is past gets obscured by modern prejudice and bias. But even if I turn away from history to the way that people behave now–especially Americans…especially the Americans I’ve seen and talked to and worked with…it often feels to me as though fear is a more profound motivation for unity than any other emotion. And that’s a bit depressing…I share Deborah’s pessimism, at least a bit. But I’m not sure I agree fully with her, and it’s good to know others are more optimistic!

      I like that phrase, “ball-of-snakes writing”, even if I’m not totally sure what it means. 🙂 Good luck with the Ambersons! And I heartily endorse letting His Family sink in a bit before moving on–Tarkington will provide a very different experience, if I’m any judge. Good luck with it–I look forward to hearing your reactions!

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