Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Those Were the Good Old Days . . . Or were they?

Years ago when my cretive outlet was painting, I was lucky to find stacks of art books at a garage sale for ridiculously low prices. One of those was a huge volume of Norman Rockwell paintings published in 1970. Originally it sold for $45.00, a large amount back then, but I came home with at least a dozen or more books so I must not have paid more than $5.00 for it.

Norman Rockwell's paintings bring nostalgia for a simpler time, a better time even for those not old enought to have lived when he started painting. He's mostly known for his Saturday Evening Post covers - 318 covers in all. But he's appeared on almost every other magazine cover, in advertisements and painted almost every Boy Scout calendar while he was alive. He painted average people using his family, his neighbors and friends as models. That's why these people seem like someone we know since we've seen them so often.

Although he was often looked down on by "serious artists and critics," he's always been one of the most loved and popular American artist. In recent years, he's finally become recognized by art critics as the fine artist he is. What makes him so loved is how his paintings tell a story. We writers need to use words to tell our story. To let a reader know what the character is feeling, we often resort to describing body language. Rockwell painted the body language. One of my many favorite Rockwell pictures is "Breaking Home Ties." It doesn't even need the title to show that. A father, maybe a farmer but definitely a simple working man, is sitting on the running board of his truck with his son. His shoulders slump, his elbows rest on his legs with his hands hanging down between his legs and they hold both his hat and his son's hat. The position of the father shows he's despondent over seeing his son go off to college. The son, however, is sitting straight up and looking eagerly down the track as they wait for the train. His hair is freshly cut, he's wearing a new suit and tie and new shoes that shine. Beside him is a simple suitcase with a pennant on the side with the only words in the picture - State U. On top of the suitcase are three books. A faithful mixed breed collie, sensing the boy is leaving, has its chin resting on the boy's leg. The dog looks sad, too. I had to use over 100 words to incompletely describe the story a viewer could have understood immediately just looking at the picture while still noticing other details I didn't mention. Of course, it only took me minutes to describe the scene while Norman Rockwell would have spent hours or days creating this work of art.

An earlier painting of Rockwell's shows the shock on a little boy's face when he discovers a Santa suit in his father's dresser drawer. As adults we can smile at it, but those of us who remember finding out Santa Claus wasn't real, can relate to that little boy.

Not all his paintings bring smiles or nostalgia. In the 1960s, his paintings showed the strife, the pain of the Civil Rights era. Who can forget the original oil sketch for Look Magazine in 1965 once they've seen it that shows a white man holding a wounded black teenager with another one, probably dead, lying nearby as the shadows of a club wielding mob approaches. And then there's the poignant painting of U.S. marshals walking a little black girl to school. The background is a dull cement wall with splashes of red where tomatoes had been thrown. What stands out the most is the girl's bright white dress and white ribbons in her hair signifying her innocence and purity.

In spite of the fact that Norman Rockwell's paintings weren't always light, it's what we most remember him for because those paintings were his most common. We think of it as the "Good Old Days" when children respected their parents, people were kinder and more considerate and where neighbor watched out for neighbor. It was a safer time with less crime and fewer bad people. I know my siblings, cousins and I wandered the fields and woods and would be gone for hours and our parents didn't worry about us.

But that picture isn't complete. In the early years when Norman Rockwell painted, the Ku Klux Clan was active and lynchings common. Factory workers and miners were forced to unionize because of unsafe working conditions and low pay. The mine and factory owners brought in thugs and the National Guard to stop the unionizing. Working in a mine was dangerous and the owners didn't want to expend any money on safety measures. Prohibition provided fertile territory for the Mafia and other criminal elements. We worry about our recession, but during the Great Depression, young  teenagers were often sent off to make their own way in the world because their family couldn't afford to feed them. There was no unemployment, Social Security or Medicaid then.

Racism, although still with us, isn't as bad as it was before the Civil Rights Movement. We still have a long way to go since there will always be people who look for those they can hate or look down on to make themselves feel more important.

Today I can see areas where life is better than previously; better medicine, at least for those who can afford it, and quicker and more complete response to natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, etc., and many more things I could name. Unfortunately, though, we now have mass shootings where any wacko can get an assault gun and kill people who anger them, or even those they don't even know and kill for no discernable reason.

So what do you think? Was there a better time in our past when people were nicer? Or have we simply covered up the bad things from the past and no long talk about them in order to pine for a nostalgic past?


Linda Rodriguez said...

Excellent, thought-provoking blog, Gloria! I remember when Newt Gingrich once said we needed to go back to Victorian times when life was better. I erupted.

Life was better for whom? Wealthy white men. Many women were forced against their will into prostitution. Child labor and forced child prostitution. No one had any votes but wealthy white male landowners. Whole families were thrown into prison because of debt. No anesthesia or antisepsis, so childbirth was a nightmare that could kill both child and mother easily. I could go on and on. And Gingrich was supposed to be a historian!

We've got serious problems today, but I think a lot of them have been caused by efforts to turn the clock back to a "better" time that have been going on in the political scene since the 1980s. And a lot of that comes because people don't know history. The days of the robber barons are not where I want to live out the rest of my life.

E. B. Davis said...

I agree with everything Linda said. But I have a question for her. Do you think the sexism I've seen in the Latino community will change? It is still with us in the US, but in the Latino population more so. Sexism seems to be a universal no matter the race, religion or culture--that's why I adhere to the adage--Eve was framed!

Warren Bull said...

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. I think every generation yearns for a simpler time in the past that exists in fantasy but did not exist in fact. For some of the people in some sheltered places live might have been easier and more cordial, but for others it was more brutal and shorter.

Kaye George said...

I agree that the 50s only seemed pristine (to some) because a lot of dirt was swept under the rug. I puzzle over people who remember an Ozzie and Harriet world, because it never actually existed. My mother AND my grandmother worked. Neither wore pearls to vacuum the house.

OTOH, there is incremental progress being made in humanizing the human race, I believe. My dad recalled the old men, the Spit n Whittle bunch, sitting on the porch of the general store in Kansas, openly jeering at a crippled boy walking down the street. He also witnessed the lynching of a black man and showed me the tree once. People may still jeer at the handicapped, but they don't do it in the open, to the approval of all. Lynchings? The equivalent still goes on, but less often, and you can be punished for it, at least.

If I didn't think things were getting better, I'd just give up!

My motto is to make my little corner of the world better for someone as often as I can. A smile and a kind word to a weary grocery store checker can make a difference.

Jim Jackson said...

Part of the reason we believe today is worse than yesterday is our 24/7 news that emphasizes the awful. For example, we hear of every bombing, every ambush, every atrocity of every conflict in the world -- and often with YouTube video. Before internet, TV and radio the only news we got was from newspapers and mouth-to-ear transmission.

Imagine how we would view the world if 24/7 we were only subjected to inspiring stories, of acts of charity, of good news.

As Linda said, no one really wants to go back 150 years (we were fighting the American Civil War at the time). The choice is really up to each of us individually: we can wallow in 24/7 shared negatives, or find positives every day in our own lives.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Linda, I have trouble understanding how anyone can follow Newt Gingrich or the Tea Party for that matter. It's quite obvious that they don't know history.

According to the managing editor of TIME, gun ownership is lower than at any time in the past 40 years, but at the same time the percentage of Americans wanting stricter gun control has dropped by almost half. Personally, I can't see any reason for anyone to have an assault gun, or any gun that can shoot multiple rounds.

Gloria Alden said...

E.B. I love your comment, and I think it's truer than we'd like to believe although better than it was in the "Good Old Days."

Gloria Alden said...

I think that's true, Warren. I know even in ancient times the elders lamented about the lack of respect in younger people. Yes, some people seem to have always lived sheltered lives and others have struggled through much of it, thus the "good old days" is relative, isn't it.

Gloria Alden said...

Kaye, I like your motto and try to live by that, too. My mother didn't work outside the home, but raised a fairly large family by today's standards, and also having health problems off and on, she worked very hard and never wore pearls or vacummed in heels, either. And yet that show was hugely popular, wasn't it.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Great blog, Gloria. I think we all like to wax nostalgic and think the past was better or safer. Part of the reason is we remember the good old days of childhood--when we didn't know half the bad things going on in the world.

Gloria Alden said...

I so totally agree with you, Jim. I don't watch TV much so I'm not inundated with the visuals, but I do listen to NPR usually once a day to find out what's going on and read the newspaper, too. I also think much of what we read today in the newspapers wasn't covered in the newspaper, if it was even reported like pedophilia. If it had been reported, I'm not sure my siblings and I would have had the freedom to roam that we had.

Gloria Alden said...

You are so right, Marilyn. Most of the things that were upsetting to me then were minor ones like my brother snapping me with a dish towel when he had to help with the dishes.

Polly Iyer said...

Wonderful blog post, Gloria. All the posters have made great points. I grew up in the fifties in a city whose two major industries were shoemaking and General Electric. Most people worked for one or the other. I remember it as a simpler time, but Jim is right about the 24/7 news that pushes everything in our faces. I never thought about politics until the Vietnam War, and I was shocked when in my early thirties I moved from Massachusetts to the South thinking everyone was voting for George McGovern. What culture shock. I don't know if we were more sheltered, because I grew up in a non-segregated, ethnically diverse area. That's an impossible thing now because the ethnic "ghettos" are larger, making it difficult to interact with people unlike ourselves.

I'm shocked and dismayed at some of the recent hate-filled rhetoric. I don't understand it and never will. I do know one thing: my children have faced much more than I ever did at corresponding ages. Innocence isn't possible anymore. I guess I long for the "good old days." But maybe that wasn't as much innocence as ignorance. It's a tough call.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, it is changing. It's a function of education. Among Latino populations that have been citizens for years AND HAVE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY FOR EDUCATION, sexism is much less of a serious problem. (Sorry about the CAPS but there's no way to italicize or bold for emphasis in comments.) We see the same thing in other immigrant populations, especially those from Catholic countries. As they become citizens if they also have access to education (which unfortunately doesn't always follow in many poor areas), coercive sexist behavior decreases. This also is in agreement with many studies that show, whenever women's education increases, they have fewer children and the education of their children increases.

Gloria Alden said...

Polly, I understand. I know my father always talked against racial inequality even in the 40s and 50s when we, who lived in a rural all white area, didn't really experience it. I agree with you that it's hard to keep children innocent anymore, or at least in ignorance as we were.

Gloria Alden said...

It also shows, Linda, that in spite of the Catholic Church's teaching, something like 98% of Catholic women believe in birth control. You're right, education is the answer. I guess my worry is there is so much ignorance out there. My sister heard a housekeeper where she works she hates Obamacare and we had to vote for Romney to get rid of it. My sister asked her, "Just what don't you like about it?" She sputtered and couldn't come up with one thing she didn't like about it and finally said, "I just don't," and stalked away. Those are the people being swayed by certain politicians. That is what is scary to me. I'm not sure that a lot of racism is not in play here. It may not be as open today as Kaye mentioned, but it's still there. How explain the willingness of Congress to jettison the country's recovery just to make sure Obama is a one term president?

Patg said...

As you might guess, I'm one of the least nostalgic person. The future and beyond and I mean thinking beyond savings in a 401K. Not that I'm a pioneer, but the sooner we live in floating cities and travel to the stars, the better.
We never seem to learn. Ireland was considered the center of European learning and woman had more rights than any up until the 1960s USA. Guess who came along and ruined all that? We never seem to learn.
And by the way, since we are the reasoning, abstract thinkers on the mud ball, we are not supposed to have a happier, easier time of it. Next time around, come back as a lap dog--if you believe it that sort of thing.