If you’re wondering whether we’re still in a Golden Age of television drama, then look no further than “The Americans” on FX. The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-planted Soviet spies, fronting as parents of an All-American family living outside of Washington D.C. during the early 1980s.
During its first three years, I’ve regarded it as an excellent drama, though perhaps a step below iconic classics such as “The Wire.” In the current season four, however, “The Americans” has moved to the next level. It is delivering other-worldly acting, morally complex storylines, and the look-and-feel of 1980s America and the last decade of the Cold War. It is riveting entertainment.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re a regular viewer but haven’t caught the recent episodes, you might want to come back to this later!)
In the last episode, many of the major characters find themselves gathered around their television screens, watching the November 1983 airing of “The Day After,” an ABC made-for-TV movie depicting the devastating effects of a Russian nuclear attack on America, centering on the small city of Lawrence, Kansas. Here’s how reviewer Hank Stuever described the episode for the Washington Post:
On “The Americans,” the characters all watch in stunned silence, including secret Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and their friendly next-door FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty). Even the Russians who work at the Rezidentura in Washington tune in – Oleg Burov and Tatiana Ruslanova (Costa Ronin and Vera Cherny) watched it curled up on the bed.
In real life, watching “The Day After” was a very similar experience. The Post‘s Stuever writes:
As seen on . . . “The Americans,” people really did set everything aside on the night of Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983, to watch ABC’s depressingly sober TV movie “The Day After.” It told the story of a handful of people in and around Lawrence, Kan., who had the misfortune of surviving an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Please understand: This was a television event in a way that we’ll probably never see again. You see, when it comes to watching stuff on screens, we’ve become increasingly atomized (pun intended). A century ago, a theater would bring together hundreds of people to watch movies and newsreels. Fifty years ago, folks watched programs with family and friends in front of television sets. Today, we often watch TV programs and movies in different rooms of the house or stream them on our various devices.
Americans viewed “The Day After” huddled together in front of our television sets. I was in my second year of law school at NYU, and a big group of us gathered to watch it in one of our dorm rooms. Today, with so many actual horrors captured on video and posted to social media, it may be difficult to grasp that this fictional movie was jarring and upsetting to many. But such was the case. We talked about it for days.
The threat of nuclear annihilation was very real during this final decade of the Cold War. That same academic year, I was on the staff of NYU’s international law journal, one of several student-edited law reviews published at the law school. A few weeks before the airing of “The Day After,” our journal hosted a panel discussion on nuclear arms control, moderated by McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor to President Kennedy) and featuring a prominent group of diplomatic and military policy experts.
The subject matter of the panel extended way beyond mere academic speculation, and I recall a tone of seriousness in the dialogue among the speakers. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game around the world. “The Day After” would show us what that meant with more dramatic effect. This episode of “The Americans” brilliantly brought back those memories.
A personal note: At NYU Law, I volunteered to help out with that nuclear arms program. By doing so, I got to join the pre-panel dinner with the speakers in the faculty dining room. I mostly kept my mouth shut out of fear of saying something stupid. Nevertheless, I was thrilled — I was sharing a meal with some heavy hitters — this was cool stuff for me!
In return for this perk, however, I was handed a lot of grunt work by the senior editors, for our main post-panel task was to transcribe and edit the proceedings for publication. I was assigned to proofread the transcript and to generate dozens of footnotes documenting facts and events described by the panelists, a hefty pre-Internet research project that ate up countless hours in the dungeon level of the law library.
Working on this journal was my introduction to graduate-level scholarly work. I can’t say that the experience of developing footnotes from scratch to verify the accuracy of the panelists’ remarks was all that enjoyable! In fact, it persuaded me to pass up an opportunity to serve as a senior editor during my third and final year of law school. I didn’t want to spend my last year at NYU editing more manuscripts and chasing down more sources in the library.
Now, of course, I’m writing hundreds of footnotes for my own scholarly articles. What a twist! Let’s just say that this was not a foreseeable development during my more anti-authoritarian law school days.
Celebrated writer Herman Wouk has reached the century mark, and he has just published what he tells us is his final book, a slim autobiographical sketch titled Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author (2016).
I cannot claim familiarity with Wouk’s full body of work, but two of his signature novels, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), and the pair of award-winning television mini-series they spawned (in 1983 and 1988-89, respectively) have profoundly shaped my understanding of the Second World War. I know that I am not alone in saying this, especially among those of my generation.
The Winds of War starts in 1939, introducing us to the Henry family, headed by U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, along with his wife Rhoda, sons Warren and Byron, and daughter Madeline. Joining them as major figures are famous Jewish author and retired professor Aaron Jastrow and his niece, Natalie, who are living in an Italian villa. Their journeys also become focal points. Also prominent are Pamela Tudsbury, a young British woman who travels the globe helping her father, foreign correspondent “Talky” Tudsbury, as well as foreign service officer Leslie Slote.
Winds finds Europe on the brink of another war, and it proceeds on through the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. War and Remembrance picks up where Winds leaves off, continuing with the stories of the Henrys and the Jastrows. But it quickly gets much darker. Remembrance uses its characters to cover the broad sweep of the war, including the Holocaust, which is portrayed in horrific, vivid detail. The mini-series includes brutal depictions of Nazi death camps, with many scenes actually filmed at Auschwitz.
Both stories continually weave in defining political and diplomatic figures of the day, including Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin, as well as many of the war’s prominent military officers.
Thanks in part to the great success of the mini-series, The Winds of War is better known to a lot of people. However, in Sailor and Fiddler, Wouk — a WWII Navy veteran — informs us that War and Remembrance was the story he had to tell.
I confess that I have immersed myself in both stories to a point of obsession, and I have learned valuable life lessons from their leading characters and lot of history from the books and the mini-series. I consider Winds and Remembrance to be the epic tales of the war era, Homeric in scope, and richly American in perspective.
If Wouk had produced nothing but these books, then I would consider his life a special one. But that is not the case. He has been a prolific writer and led a rewarding, full life. And at 100 years old, he still had enough gas in the tank to write this neat little book about his life.
I often say that if we want to live good lives, then we can learn from the stories of good people who are our seniors. Herman Wouk is a prime example.
If you have eight minutes to spare for a fun little historical video, go to this New England Historical Society page to view a streetcar ride in the heart of Boston during the early 1900s.
Those familiar with Boston will recognize a fair number of buildings that remain intact (more or less) today, including the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library, pictured above. With some unfortunate exceptions, mainly parts of the city where a myriad of “urban renewal” projects and other monstrosities (like the unsightly City Hall) supplanted fine old buildings, a lot of Boston’s vintage structures are still with us. Some happen to be of great historical significance.
As you watch the video, notice how the people are dressed. Perhaps reinforced by the grainy quality of the black & white video, they look very much the same. I was tempted to attribute this to Boston’s historic lack of fashion variety. But I think it has more to do with the fact that some 110 years ago, a lot fewer people expressed their individuality through choice of clothing, at least to the point where it would be noticeable on old film footage.
I love old films like this. They are typically raw, soundless, and absent any sense of story, but they’re the next best thing to being able to jump into a time machine for a quick walk through a city over a century ago.
Hat tip to Rosina-Maria Lucibello for this video.
Given my frequent bouts of nostalgia, I thought I’d delve way back into my boyhood to trace how this has been a natural state of affairs for me. Indeed, while we often associate nostalgia with memories of people, events, and experiences of long ago, I recall having these feelings as early as my grade school years.
In fact, my original bouts of nostalgia were grounded in family trips to see relatives in Hawaii, when my brother Jeff and I were very young. These visits occurred every few years, and they created lasting memories. When one of the local Chicago area TV stations would run episodes of “Hawaii Calls,” a syndicated travel program that included many of the touristy Hawaiian songs we learned during our visits, I would find myself holding back tears over memories of our own travels to the Aloha State — memories that may have been only a year old!
By the time I entered my teen years, and proceeding into my college days, nostalgia was a natural, common state for me. During those years I also discovered my penchant for historical nostalgia, that is, feeling a very emotional connection to defined stretches of the past that preceded my arrival. America’s “Roaring Twenties” constituted the first such period to capture my fascination. No doubt that my enjoyment of history is fueled by this energetic tie.
As I alluded to above, like many, I associate memories with music. My nostalgic episodes, real and historic, typically have strong musical connections. It’s appropriate that I would link in this post a couple of classics from Don Ho, one of the iconic performers of popular Hawaiian songs. Both were favorites during our visits to Hawaii many years ago.
In 1750, the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford, and it wouldn’t take long for the concept to take hold across the country. According to Aytoun Ellis’s The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (1956), by the end of that century, London was home to over 2,000 coffee houses, located throughout the city!
Ellis used the term “penny university” because a penny would gain entrance to a place of strong brew, the newspapers and periodicals of the day, and lively discussions about politics, literature, and commerce. Not surprisingly, when it came to ambience, location mattered a lot. Coffee houses located near universities filled with intellectual exchange. By contrast, much business would be conducted at coffee houses located in commercial districts. And still others would be host to gambling and other less refined activities.
Though I’d enjoy a quick time machine visit to a few of these old coffee houses, I doubt that I’d long to spend much time in them. I imagine that many were pretty loud and boisterous places, whereas my ideal of a coffee-consuming establishment is a café quiet enough to read or do a little work. Some brew to help awaken the mind and a place to sit down and read (or think) big thoughts . . . I like that.
In November 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took over 60 American as hostages, triggering an event that would stretch on for over 440 days. Here’s how PBS describes what happened:
On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. “From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later,” wrote historian Gaddis Smith, “the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II.”
The Iranian hostage crisis dominated the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and played a significant role in his loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980. Beyond its impact on the election, the hostage crisis is notable for at least two big reasons:
First, it put the Middle East squarely into the heart of American diplomacy and military strategy. Remember, this was still the period of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was regarded as America’s number one foe. The Iranian hostage crisis, while certainly different than foreign policy challenges in the region today, nevertheless foreshadowed the global conflict shifts to come for the U.S.
Second, in America it changed the way we watched the news, competing with the late night talk shows. ABC’s “Nightline” came on right after the evening local news programs, and the hostage crisis was its largest focus throughout 1980, with updates every night. “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, with a steady and understated style, would become one of the most familiar and trusted broadcast journalists of the era.
I was in college at Valparaiso University during the period of the hostage crisis, and “Nightline” was popular among those of us clued into politics and public affairs. I can only imagine how a similar situation might be covered by the cable news stations today, especially CNN or Fox News, but back in the day it was Ted Koppel and Co. who framed the international news for us.
As both a history buff and a wannabe time traveler, I find that historically significant journals and diaries can be a wonderful way of jumping into the past. In the hands of gifted chroniclers, they offer intimate, we-are-there views of momentous times, blending reportage, observation, context, and some instant reflection and analysis.
Two of my favorites are William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41 (1941) and John Kenneth Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years (1969). Here are some snapshot page views from both books:
William Shirer was both a print journalist and a radio reporter in Berlin during the tumultuous 1930s and the early years of the Second World War. In the photo above, we see Shirer writing about the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, regarded as the official launch of the war. He quickly and accurately dismisses attempts by Hitler and his High Command to spin the invasion as a defensive “counter-attack” in response to supposed Polish aggression.
And here’s one of his 1940 entries, writing about the British evacuation of Dunkirk following the fall of France. Note, at the bottom of the page, his observations about how the German people are now regarding the material deprivations they experienced as Germany prepared for war.
Shirer would go on to write one of the most popular books ever about the war, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
John Kenneth Galbraith was an accomplished Harvard economist, liberal political figure, and author of a bestselling (and still relevant) book, The Affluent Society, when he became an advisor to the Kennedy campaign. Galbraith’s journal mixes insider stories about the Kennedy Administration, his experiences as Kennedy’s ambassador to India, and texts of letters that he wrote to the President.
Some of the most interesting parts of the journal recount the period immediately following Kennedy’s election in 1960. In the passage above, Galbraith shares news of his pending diplomatic assignment and his conversation with the President-elect about potential cabinet appointees.
And here’s an entry with news that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy will be making a short, informal trip to India, along with some humorous details about how Galbraith has been instructed to keep the visit confidential for now.
When it comes to journals and diaries from historically significant times, I much prefer the prose of observers such as Shirer and Galbraith over tawdry tell-all tales designed to sell books and attract talk show invitations. Shirer was a reporter, while Galbraith was a participant, but both journals share levels of restraint, sans the kind of voyeuristic detail we might expect in similar efforts today.
They are also fascinating to read, drawing us into different times and places. In the absence of time travel machines, books like these are pretty good substitutes.
Time travel: Some favorite destinations (2013) — If I could go back in time, here’s my list!
A bookstore visit triggers memories of meeting an intellectual hero (2014) — My meeting with John Kenneth Galbraith, weeks before he passed away.
Although Christopher Columbus isn’t on my list of favorite historical figures — click here and here for reasons — the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that bore his name was a sight to behold. The “Columbian Exposition,” named to recognize the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas, attracted a global audience to the brawny, growing metropolis of Chicago.
The 1893 Fair was a celebration of the world, its past, present, and future. This awesome little picture book, a gift from my long-time friends the Driscoll Family, presents a collection of photographs that capture some of that fascination. I’m delighted to share a sampling:
The Palace of Fine Arts was a chief showpiece building of the Fair. It is now Chicago’s famous Museum of Science and Industry.
This panoramic shot of the Fair helps to explain why it was called “The White City.”
While striving for an Old World look, the Fair celebrated scientific invention and manufacturing capacity.
Disney’s Epcot Center doesn’t hold a candle to the small scale re-creation of other nations at the 1893 Fair.
The Fair offered looks at exotic parts of the world. Check out the expressions of these ladies.
You could do some simulated exploring as well…maybe this inspired a future Indiana Jones?!
Refreshment stands dotted the Fair. I’m sure they were especially welcomed during hot Chicago summer days.
Guys who were bored with all of the cultural exhibits and displays could line up for this distraction. (This photo contains one of the longest lines of any exhibit in the book!)
America’s emerging role in international affairs and growing military strength were exemplified by the U.S.S. Illinois, a full-scale mock-up of a modern battleship that presaged even larger warships to appear at the turn of the century.
For more foreshadowing of events to come in the next century, the Krupp company, a major German gunmaker, had its own building.
But we shouldn’t finish our photo tour with ominous signs for the future. Rather, let us close with a reminder of the Fair’s beauty, via this wonderful night shot.
Could we ever have another World’s Fair? Probably not. The last genuine Fair was in 1964, in New York City. Subsequent efforts to stage such expositions haven’t generated the same levels of interest and attendance. In an age where the Internet, television, and international travel combine to shrink the globe, it’s hard to foresee anything like the 1893 Fair occurring anytime soon.
But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining the sense of fascination and wonder that drew visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair experienced back then. The Old World was making way for the New one, and these photographs make it clear that the Fair captured that moment in time.
If you want to learn more about the Chicago World’s Fair, check out its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a snippet:
The layout of the Chicago Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. It was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be. It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. Many prominent architects designed its 14 “great buildings”. Artists and musicians were featured in exhibits and many also made depictions and works of art inspired of the exposition.
The exposition covered more than 600 acres (2.4 km2), featuring nearly 200 new (but purposely temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. . . . More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.
Dedication ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until May 1, 1893. The fair continued until October 30, 1893. In addition to recognizing the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Europeans, the fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.
Also, the Chicago Historical Society has an excellent online feature about the Fair.
Finally, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003), interweaves the story of the Fair with the gruesome tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes, whose private torture chamber was located a close west of the city’s fairgrounds. It’s a riveting book.
What are your “comfort books”? You know, those books that make you feel all warm and cozy, like a good meatloaf or bowl of soup?
It could be a classic novel, scary story, or atmospheric mystery. Or maybe a compelling tale of history or travel. How about an inspirational or spiritual book? If you’re a sports fan, maybe it’s a story about your favorite team.
I have comfort books that fit into most of these categories.
But in a confession of my free fall into complete geekdom, I’ll share one that I’m guessing you haven’t heard of before. It’s an intellectual history book, Men of Learning at the End of the Middle Ages (2000), by French historian Jacques Verger. I spied it at a bookstore over a decade ago, and it looked interesting enough to take a flier on it.
Men of Learning looks at how educated European men of the 14th and 15th centuries — mostly scholars, teachers, lawyers, doctors, clergy, and bureaucrats — contributed to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.
Verger combed through a lot of libraries and archives to be able to share, for example, the numbers of volumes in the private libraries of well-known and not-so-well-known individuals of the era. The Gutenberg printing press did not come along until the 1440s, which meant that printed books were precious, and that books written out by copyists were still quite popular. A personal library of even a few dozen or so volumes was considered an impressive (and monetarily valuable) intellectual endowment.
Today, libraries of major research universities contains millions of books and countless other print resources, not to mention access to even more via online resources. In the late Middle Ages, however, even the libraries of great medieval universities typically numbered in the hundreds(!) of volumes. I probably shouldn’t get too big headed over the fact that my personal library contains more books than that of the entire Oxford University library during the early 1400s, especially given that volumes such as Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader are a part of mine, but I still think it’s pretty neat.
Oops, I’m already getting carried away! Why does Men of Learning resonate with me as a comfort book? Probably because it connects with a big part of who I am, someone who revels in books and learning.
Your comfort books may be much different than mine — I don’t expect a run on Men of Learning because of this blog post — but that’s fine and dandy with me. Read and enjoy.
I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month I dug back to 1976 for a couple of really solid films.
Aces High (1976) (3 stars out of 4)
Although I’m a big fan of historical dramas, I somehow managed to miss Aces High until now. It’s an underrated war movie about British fighter pilots during the First World War. Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Peter Firth, and Simon Ward are the stars of an ensemble cast.
The movie features very good aerial scenes (no irritating CGI here) and interesting if sometimes cliched personal dramas. This film was a pleasant surprise, a random streaming discovery from Netflix. It stands well above two more recent WWI aviator movies, Flyboys (2006) and The Red Baron (2008).
The Omen (1976) (3.5 stars)
The Omen is one of my long-time favorites, a movie that first sent chills up my spine back in high school and continues to do so. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick co-star as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and his wife. They have a son, and let’s just say that he’s a young man of Biblical qualities, and not the good kind.
Yup, there are some plot implausibilities that are stretches even for horror film. But it delivers on goosebumps. Suffice it to say that after watching The Omen, you’ll be wary of surprise nannies, little boys with a head of steam, and priests bearing bad news.