Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The past has a new look

... on the Web.

Most people except those raised in state schools have at least some interest in history. Not to know what happened before you were born, said Cicero, is to remain forever a child. Curiosity about the past is usually satisfied, more or less, by reading books about whatever period or event interests you.

Whether written by professional historians or journalists, such accounts usually have several advantages for the reader. The author has presumably read from many sources of information. He has weighed the value of various descriptions of what happened. He has the big picture in mind and is able to put specifics into a larger whole. (All this is of course the ideal, not necessarily the reality.)

Inevitably, though, the person writing later, often long after the events, finds it hard not to inject the present into the past. Other times are seen through a contemporary sensibility -- the modern interpreter, even if she is aware of the problem, may get the facts right but have trouble understanding them as people in the past did, even when quoting or using original records.

The point is not that people who were present at historical events or lived in other times were more "correct" in their perceptions. They were just as likely biased or saw complicated situations from only one viewpoint among many. Historical writing has always had to face the problem of balancing first-hand observation with reasoned, and after-the-fact, synthesis.

But it can be intriguing to read how people described things at the time, especially in journalism, those "first drafts of history." Such accounts often include details that struck the writer as worth mentioning, but which have long since evaporated from memory.

Google Books has led the way, reproducing out-of-copyright books as well as a number of magazines that gave them permission. Google Books deserves credit for not sticking to popular or even "respectable" publications. The magazines they've made available, issue-by-issue, sometimes for decades, include not only mass market titles like Life and Popular Science, but a wonderfully bizarre selection of specialized publications: Indianapolis Monthly, American Woodworker, Vegetarian Times, Negro Digest, and Kiplinger's Personal Finance (be sure you're up to date with all the hot mutual funds of 1992!), etc.

Lately Google has been put in the shade by another site specializing in old magazines and journals, with a far wider selection. The newcomer is called simply All Periodicals, and it's a hoot. The index of titles runs from The Abolitionist (no, not from the slavery era, but March 1970 to September 1971) to Yank (1942-1945). You can search by date, from pre-1850 on.

Its proprietor Ron Unz, I learn from Wikipedia, ran for California governor in 1994 and later became publisher of The American Conservative.

Despite Unz's rare (for California) conservative leanings, his site's selection of historic magazines ranges all over the political map, from The New Masses ("Meet Some Jew-Baiters," Jan. 9, 1945) to The Freeman/Ideas on Liberty ("Seventeen Arguments Against Socialized Medicine," November 1960). You can dissolve yourself in Double Action Western (1952-1953), New Love Magazine (1949-1951), Scrutiny (1932-1963), Unknown (1939-1948), Munsey's Magazine (1894-1929 [ending ominously in October]), The Anglo-Soviet Journal (1940-1974), and many other publications luminous and obscure.

They are all PDFs, avoiding the typos caused by optical character readers, plus you can see the original typefaces, design, cartoons, and fillers.

Returning to our theme of the strange fascination of reading how subjects were treated contemporaneously: consider, for example, a piece titled "Norfolk -- Our Worst War Town" in the February 1943 American Mercury. It says:
We rode through the narrow streets of Norfolk's old red light district in a scout car. As we passed block after block of decaying two-story houses, our host, the cop, talked honestly of the headaches in handling forty thousand sailors and multiplied thousands of new shipbuilding war workers.

"Norfolk’s always been a sailor town," he explained, "and here’s how we took care of the boys up until a year ago. Wehad about four hundred prostitutes in here. They kept up the property and paid taxes on it. They weren’t allowed out of the district at night. Each
girl had to get a health certificate every week, and when a sailor came up with a disease, the Navy told us where he got it and we took the rotten apple out of the barrel. In that way we kept things under control.

"The sailors liked it that way. They could get stewed, yell and dance, then get out in the street and fight to their heart’s content. All we had to do was pick ’em up in the Navy wagons and take ’em back down to the base. If a sailor had been rolled, he gave us the address and we went back and got his money for him. It was a good system. The Navy liked it because it kept the disease rate down.The sailors liked it. And we officers liked it because we could control it that way. ...

Women,"wine," and the galloping dominoes, of course, are the principal law enforcement problems. Fashions in wars may change, but the nocturnal objectives of a twenty-year-old boy in a sailor suit remain pretty constant. Every night is Saturday night in Norfolk, because about twelve thousand sailors come to town every night.
We stood with the cop and watched them start piling out of staggering buses about five o’clock. We followed the bobbing whitecaps to the liquor store. The line was already two blocks long and the fellows up front were doing a land-office commission business on purchases they agreed to make for mates not in line.
I doubt you will become acquainted with this side of wartime Norfolk, Virginia, in any history book. Although as the man said, fashions in wars may change but not the freely detonating hormones of young sailors. I've heard from old timers that San Diego too was a wide-open town in World War II, as I suspect more than a few other military-linked cities and towns were.

Of course the article might be sensationalism or mostly fantasy. American Mercury's reputation declined by a long shout in the post-Mencken era. But it sure gives you a slightly different glance at the Greatest Generation.


Five Daarstens said...

I wish someone would put Pravda online, it would be interesting to read about some events in the West from perspective.

Rick Darby said...

Five Daarstens,

Pravda is online. See

Stogie said...

This is a great resource. I have used Google Books and benefited from it, and I am happy to know about this new source. Thanks for posting it.

YIH said...

I saw your comment over at Mangan's. I also watched that YouTube of the modern game and I too was horrified. In it any and all non ''team members'' were fair game to shoot dead (even the man who was merely trying to drag a wounded fellow to safety).
As you can guess, I'm not much of a 'gamer' anymore though I enjoyed them when I was younger.
But it the past (1980's and many RPG's) it was 'cartoonish' and had a distinct moral code:
I used to enjoy the Nintendo game Hogan's Alley. It used the ''Nintendo zapper'' a modified 'light pen' to ''shoot'' at the screen.
As you can see in the Wikipedia page, the point was not only to ''shoot'' the ''bad guys'' but to avoid shooting the ''good guy'' targets.