We will remember this.
Sixteen months after we began canceling events, we’re coming back out. The virus is still afoot, and nightclubs and festivals aren’t fully booked yet, but enough people feel safe that we are emerging from our cocoons, perhaps a little changed.
We’re seeing once-familiar friends and associates for the first time since before it all started, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that some of us look more than a year or two older.
It should be forgivable to assume this experience seems “historic.”
You can’t live in America for more than a week or two without hearing the term “history in the making”: whether it’s a dramatic football game, or a climactic rock ‘n’ roll show, or a moving speech at a City Council meeting. “That’s one for the history books,” we like to say. But does anybody actually read the history books? And things that seemed momentous at the time, things we assume our grandchildren will ask us about, aren’t.
Journalists in particular are notoriously poor at identifying what people really will remember. In the late 1950s, reporters devoted considerably more attention to the grand opening of Knoxville’s first Howard Johnson Restaurant on Kingston Pike than to, say, something else that was happening the same year, the first few dozen live-audience radio broadcasts of a remarkable young singer and songwriter named Dolly Parton.
It’s hard to blame them. By 1950s standards, Howard Johnson was making Knoxville more shiny and modern and air-conditioned and connected to the rest of the jet-age modern world that already had Howard Johnsons–and Dolly was just a kid, another pitiable hillbilly singer in homemade clothes. Of course, that orange-roofed Howard Johnson restaurant, greeted with so much hoopla in 1958, lasted only a decade or so before it was torn down. Later, the brand itself disintegrated, the name kept as that of a barely related hotel chain. Today Howard Johnson’s restaurant is remembered by only a few over-60s, who, now that you mention it, sometimes do recall the fried clams. And I just checked online, via Google’s fascinating Ngram option, to confirm something I already knew. In 2021, Dolly Parton is better known than the memory of all the Howard Johnsons in history.
We had no idea.
In many or even most cases, what seems momentous at the time, greeted with mayoral proclamations and ribbon cuttings, is forgotten tomorrow. But there are exceptions, and this is one.
The coronavirus experience, the consequent lockdown, the rising death toll, and, saving the best for last, this tentative reopening–is a historically memorable era. For once, we can say that with some confidence.
Of course, we remember eras differently. And given a length of years, we may remember things differently in the future than we remembered them at the time. As a culture we like to digest and redigest the past, and as we do, the past keeps changing.
Consider other historical eras. After a while, we may remember not what we remember, ourselves–but what others remember for us. Say “the Sixties,” for example, and a TV documentarian will quickly come up with a film clip of young men with machine guns in a helicopter over a jungle, with Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “All Along the Watchtower” as the soundtrack. Juxtaposed with more footage of bold demonstrators putting flowers in the gun barrels of stoic guardsmen. Or clips of shaggy hippies getting naked and muddy at Woodstock. After a while, that film clip is playing in our own brains.
Of course, 99 percent of Americans never saw Vietnam. Most probably never got very close to an actual hippie. Jimi Hendrix was never on American radio much in the ‘60s (he was much more popular in Great Britain). And only about one in 500 Americans made it to Woodstock, which was known to most Americans only via a few Page 5 wire stories, sometimes jocular, sometimes worrisome, about drug abuse and festival-related lawsuits.
For some of us, truth be told, the Sixties were more personal, and less dramatic. Some of us have honest and vivid memories of riding around wet in the way-back of an unair-conditioned Ford Fairlane station wagon, eyes bleary with chlorine. Detective Comics, stained with French-fry oil, read at Long’s soda counter. Of learning to mow grass and our good old Weimaraner, Bridget Bar Dog. Of getting air conditioning, but still wishing for a color TV. Of my grandfather dying of lung cancer, and of my lively, resourceful Aunt Helen dying a few months later, also of cancer, enough to convince me that life was not as dependable as advertised.
At those Sixties hospital dramas I’m pretty sure Hendrix wasn’t in the background. More likely Dionne Warwick or Petula Clark.
My point is that there wasn’t any one thing that we all did in the Sixties. There are over a million distinctly different American Sixties.
But 2020-21 is already a more generalized trauma, more universally experienced, than anything that happened in the Sixties, and really anything in living memory, with the possible exception of World War II.
It’s obvious that people have experienced it in different ways. Around one sixth of us came down with the virus. Most didn’t—but certain aspects of it are universal, or at least experienced by an enormous majority. It’s been the top of the news, most days, for about 500 days. We will always remember not getting to go to parties, or festivals, or business meetings, or lectures, or school, or church, or concerts–for a full year and change.
We all, or at least all of us who felt a need to go to the grocery, wore masks over our faces, most of us for the first time in our lives. For generations to come, children will see photographs from this era, and ask why we all look like outlaws. And assuming this era is remembered as historically as we have reason to expect, parents and grandparents who aren’t even born yet will be able to tell them.
The overwhelming majority of us have experienced the shots. In my experience, literally every one of them has a story to tell about how they felt, and for how long, after which one.
And many of us know people who died. At this writing, about 650 Knox County residents have died of the global virus. If the Tennessee Theatre was packed with a random sample of Knox Countians in early 2020, three of them would have succumbed.
We compare it most often with the Spanish Flu of 1918. And that old influenza was terrifying, with a faster spread and a death rate about twice as high as that of the coronavirus. We got some of the same instructions then: put off your weddings, cancel your funerals, stand six feet apart, don’t cough or sneeze without covering your face. But in 1918 the deadliest wave of it was over in about a month, when about 200 Knoxvillians died—and then, except for a few back-page reports about one limited late outbreak or another, it was over, and we returned to our regular lives.
The last 16 months have been more comparable to a major war. More Americans have died of Covid in 16 months of 2020-21 than died in almost four years of World War II. More, in fact, than in both world wars put together. Of course, it’s hard to call those deaths equivalent, considering that most soldiers who die in battle are very young.
Beyond the fatalities, the coronavirus and our reaction to it has been warlike in another way, in that it’s been a universal experience. At this writing, only about 15 percent of Knox Countians are known to have contracted the virus, but we all know several of them by now.
In all, coronavirus has offered the world a rare universal bit of punctuation. It forced a pause that affected cultures, economies, politics, and technologies in every nation on the planet. In the past, such punctuations have often signaled unpredictable cultural shifts.
Of course, in this optimistic summer, we can’t be sure that 2021 will always be remembered as this peculiar era’s end date. We have educated reasons to hope so. In any case, we’ll remember these Early Twenties.
It’s impossible at this date to guess whether these Twenties will ever roar, like those other Twenties did. We remember those Twenties, maybe romantically, as an era when we learned to dance weird new steps to a bizarre new music called Jazz—coincidentally, it was also when an equally odd sound called Hillbilly first came to the fore—as we tried on strange new clothes and wacky hairstyles, to attend wild parties. The Twenties brought lots of new ideas in art and literature, and fresh and sometimes whimsical architecture, playing impudent games with old styles while creating shocking new ones.
It was an irreverent era, especially for the young, but it was not considered an especially liberal time in terms of banking or politics or the law. The 1920s saw a long stretch of conservative Republican presidents, with a conservative Supreme Court. In the 1920s, it was illegal, for the entire decade and a few years after, to buy a can of beer or a bottle of wine. At the same time, international politics gave Americans an excuse for an unprecedented fear of foreigners; it was in the early Twenties when even the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce referred to “the undesirable foreign element.” And when the Ku Klux Klan, boasting of three million members nationwide, marched on Washington, in one of the biggest demonstrations in the nation’s capital before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, 37 years later. The United States, as a whole, seemed suspicious of the motives of the world beyond the oceans. Isolationism was regarded by millions as the logical response to a world of unpredictability.
When folks refer to the past of a century ago as “a simpler time”—well, I don’t even know where to start.
But maybe that contrast, of creativity in the midst of reactionary conservativism and abstemiousness, is what made it so dynamic. Button-down traditionalism, xenophobia, self-denial, and what President Harding called “normalcy,” was the setting for so much of its opposite: That same era when you had to know somebody special just to get a drink was also the era of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, of Ida Cox and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, of Fletcher Henderson and George Gershwin and Man Ray.
We’re always going to have one thing and another at the same time. This is America, and we are, for better or worse, humans. One gesture always riles or embarrasses the other side, and creates its defiant opposite. (If history teaches us anything, it’s that America is not ever going to be a liberal country or a conservative country, despite a lot of ferocious urging from all camps.)
Some quick-thinking scholars have lately claimed the explosion of creativity of the 1920s was a bounce-back consequence of the horror of the pandemic of 1918 and/or the Great War. Our own era of self-denial and abstemiousness has lasted much longer than that of the Spanish Flu era, and almost as long as U.S. involvement in World War I. And our death toll in Knox County has been more than both of 1918’s catastrophes combined. We might expect an even greater creative boost this time.
But there are too many other factors, including that perverse political one, and unpredictable technological ones, to come to easy conclusions about those Twenties, much less ours. (Technology’s always there, and evolving, but will Non Fungible Tokens amount to anything as revolutionary as the big new technology of a century ago, which was called “Radio”?)
Maybe something will happen in these new Twenties, or perhaps is already happening.
What’s more certain is that we’ll remember this particular part of it. And that, at least for the summer, being in a bar, or just hearing a lecture, is a lot more fun than it was two or three years ago.
by Jack Neely, July 2021