Just before the turn of the new year, an article in The New York Times caught my attention. “What Events Most Shaped America in Your Lifetime?” A Pew Survey Tries to Answer. It was one of those articles that you read as you are looking back on one year, and forward to a new year, or perhaps, looking back on a life and forward to a future. What struck me was how different my list was from the list in the Pew Survey. Sure, there were some similarities. 9/11 and the assassination of JFK, but the Orlando shootings? The election of Obama? Defining moments to be sure, but life-shaping? Can the definition of life-shaping vary so much among the generations?
The article set me to thinking about what events shaped my life. I am a mid-boomer, raised with three channel television in a town where the local newspaper was titled The Rutherford Republican. We were proud to support the first Catholic presidential candidate as students at St. Mary School. Three years later, word filtered through the same classrooms that our president was shot and we were to pray the rosary before dismissal. At home, we turned our TV sets to Walter Cronkite and saw him wipe tears from his eyes. America lost its innocence that day. November 22, 1963. And eleven-year-old children knew if a president was at risk, so was the world. Literature in the coming year reflected both the fear of Russia who was believed to have set the assassin up on us (John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) and the disillusionment with the world around us that would allow something so awful to happen (Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Mary Mc McCarthy’s The Group, Saul Bellow’s Herzog).
Two assassinations in 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, further increased our sense of insecurity, but by then, the world knew that anything was possible, and literature had morphed from reflecting the horror of real life to reflecting the tenor of society. The popular books of the day were Jacqueline Suzanne’s The Love Machine, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, bracketed by Helen MacInness’s taut WWII based thriller The Salzburg Connection, and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
A number of years passed with a number of wonderful and/or horrific, but not necessarily life-shaping events in the national sense, at least not for my generation. We rejoiced in the moon landing. Shed tears following the Viet Nam war on television. The tragedy of Wounded Knee tore at us all. Watergate is still a conundrum. Nixon’s resignation both expected and shocking. Amnesty for draft dodgers, I don’t want to delve into politics so I’ll leave it at that. The horror of seeing the giant Y shaped contrails of Challenger piercing the Florida sky. The firestorm of Waco. Hurricane Andrew and the Iraq war both personal experiences. So many events. Events that marked and changed the lives of those that participated in them, but not the nation as a whole. Not until 9/11.
The world stopped again on that awful day. And again, literature followed suit by offering solace and sympathy. The January best seller of 2002, most telling was John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas. The rest were a mixed bag of mystery, thriller, short story, horror. In short, we seemed to draw comfort from books, however we best found it.
Life changing events are apt to be generational. What were yours? Did literature, television, or movies offer ways to help make sense of the inexplicable, or provide escape?