Essay: For Many, Personal History Can Trump National 50th Remembrances
Here we are, still devastated from the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination (Nov. 22, 2013), when along comes the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” (Feb. 9, 2014) to lift our spirits. It’s not as sobering an occasion as the 50th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech this past Aug. 28, or as chilling as the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis (Oct. 14 to 28) the year before, but for my money it’s at least as inspiring as the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight in Friendship 7 (on Feb. 20, 2012), and surely as satisfying, for a liberal, anyhow, as the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater, coming up this fall.
I am sure that, many years from now, we will turn to our grandchildren and tell them the stories of where we were on the 50th anniversaries of all these historic events. Yes, Jenny Junior, I still remember where I was on the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Julia Child’s The French Chef (Feb. 11, 2013). I was standing in my kitchen, making a souffle and tearing the pages off of a calendar.
The decade of the 1960s, currently celebrating its golden jubilee, provides us with a seemingly endless series of moments upon which we can look back with misty-eyed wisdom. As Nietzsche said, “History repeats itself — first time as tragedy; the second time as a listicle on Buzzfeed.”
Readers who find such features wearying are in for a rough time in the years ahead. Between now and Aug. 9, 2024 (the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, and the cultural finale of “the 1960s”), we should expect a column about the 50th anniversary of some damned thing pretty much every other week. In the next few months alone, we can anticipate 50th anniversary retrospectives, complete with never-before-seen-photos and now-it-can-be-told revelations, on everything from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the introduction of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe (see above).
Given that, after 50 years, there’s so little new one can say about most of these events, our insatiable hunger to keep reading about them suggests that the thing we’re actually interested in is something other than the historical occurrences themselves. Maybe, for people like me (I’m 55), revisiting the 1960s gives us a chance to think about the long road we’ve all traveled since then, and how our private lives have been shaped by the history we’ve experienced. I know that as a child in the 1960s, I came to fear the world I saw on Huntley-Brinkley, and became convinced it was a dangerous and violent place. Once, in the midst of that decade, I told my parents that I didn’t ever want to go to college. Because colleges were the places where protestors burned the buildings down.
For children, history can be the first experience of trauma. It’s no wonder we keep revisiting these events, again and again, well into our middle age. Somehow, in all this rooting around in the past, maybe we’re hoping that, this time, things will come out differently.
When Osama bin Laden was killed, many commentators observed that some of the most visible public celebrations were those of the millennial generation, most of whom were quite young on Sept. 11, 2001. My son Sean came home from kindergarten the day of the attacks, and when I asked him if he could think of any words that began with “B,” he thought for a moment and then said, in his sweet, trusting voice, “Bomb?”
I suspect there will be plenty of retrospectives on May 2, 2061, on the 50th anniversary of bin Laden’s death.
The anniversaries that provide the most interesting occasion for looking back, though, aren’t events that seemed historic at the time. The Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan seems like an inevitable sea change now, the moment the baby boomers took over the culture. But plenty of observers at the time didn’t think there was anything that significant, culturally, about a bunch of guys from Liverpool singing on a television show, or at least not any more significant than, say, the performance of the husband-and-wife team of Brill and McCall, who had the misfortune to go on immediately after them. It takes a while for the narrative of our days to make sense. Sometimes it takes a lifetime.
For many of us, though, the anniversaries that mean the most are those that mark our own history, not the history of the country. I didn’t have a party last summer to commemorate the anniversary of the March on Washington (although I should have). But in June we had a barbecue, and an Irish fiddle band, and a keg of Shipyard. That was the 25th anniversary of the day my wife and I were married, and many of our friends joined us at our house in Maine. One of our guests even brought us a silver teaspoon — that is, after all, what tradition demands, even if the marriage in question (like ours) is untraditional by almost every measure.
As John Lennon might have noted, history is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
I know I’ll have plenty of occasion to think about all of this in June 2058. That month will be especially meaningful to me, and why not? It will be my 100th birthday.
The 50th anniversary of my 50s.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is the national co-chair of GLAAD and the author of She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and Stuck in the Middle With You: Parenthood in Three Genders .