Inventors of the 20th Century

In 1896, the historian commonly known as Lord Acton gave a speech to the Syndics (officials) of the Cambridge University Press, in which he expressed a conviction that, in the coming years, “we can dispose of conventional history…now that all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution.”

The spirit evident in remarks that looked forward to the opening of the 20th century, coupled with our knowledge of the speaker’s stature and that of his audience, not to mention the gravity of the occasion, conveys the otherwise ineffable sense of the time period, independent of any contemporary assessment of Lord Acton’s prediction. (The word “sense,” in this instance, appropriately signals both feeling and meaning.)

Stories draw us into other worlds in a way that mere facts do not. Their worth endures even when the convictions once championed by an age have faded or disappeared entirely.

Like postcards from the past, whether recent or ancient, stories tell us something about who we once were and about ideas that may or may not still move us. And, in doing so, they offer us new vantage points from which to meditate on who we are, and to question the certitude with which we, ourselves, hold ideas and values as sacred.

Another prominent English historian, E.H. Carr excerpted Lord Acton’s remarks in the opening to his classic 1961 lecture series (later published as a book under the title What is History?).

Carr pointed to Lord Acton’s remarks and a contrary viewpoint expressed in the 1950s by Sir George Clark in order to contrast the “clear-eyed self-confidence of the Victorian Age” with the “bewilderment and distracted skepticism of the Beat Generation,” making the point that our perspective on history “consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time.”

In seeking a conscious engagement with history, I must acknowledge that the 20th Century Project also belongs to the present, coinciding with the second decade in the current century and, moreover, the fourth decade in my own life.

The Project began, in the fall of 2011, with an attempt to distill the prolific literature of 100 years down to a reasonable selection of works (i.e. approximately 10-12), each of which might offer a keyhole-sized view on the year in which they were published and the group of which, together, might encapsulate some larger sense of the century itself.

I conclude this first year of reading, contemplation and writing having, in the meantime, formed a more coherent sense of the Project’s purpose. Over the course of the next nine years, I intend to consider the 20th Century itself as a collaborative project, a joint invention, one in which everyone who lived participated in some way, no matter how small, but to which some have made, at the least, a more visible contribution.

From that smaller (but by no means small) group, I’ve further specialized by selecting from those writers who either documented their own significant work or recorded their observations on and insights about the lives led around them, whether in fictional or non-fiction forms.

I have chosen and will continue to choose writers for their diversity (in geography, gender, race, subject matter and so on), their virtuosity (taking into account both critical and popular success) and because they interest me for more personal reasons, which I will share whenever relevant.

I make no claim that the writers chosen are categorically or collectively more significant than other prominent writers of the period, nor that the works chosen necessarily represent the pinnacle of each author’s achievements, but I propose that the authors themselves are each, at the very least, among the inventors of the 20th Century. (Perhaps the Project can serve as a model encouraging others to explore the lives and contributions of other significant authors and figures from the period.)

In pursuing their own divergent 20th century projects, these men and women – fired by ideas and values that they either conceived or carried forward, influencing and inspiring, or frustrating and infuriating, their contemporaries and successors – set about shaping a body of ideas that would form their legacy and our inheritance.

Even as the 20th century has concluded, its history is, in Carr’s words, “an unending dialogue” between the period of 1900 through 1999 and our own fast-flowing, ever-changing present. With my own 20th Century Project, I aim to participate in that dialogue and, if I can, to push it in new directions, by mining my own observations for insight and by amplifying more contemporary voices that have something new to say about something old.

It is both our responsibility and privilege to explore our inheritance from the 20th century and seek to assess its worth. Our successors will make their own assessment and they may come to different conclusions, but theirs will be the richer for having ours as a point of comparison and contrast.

To be continued on Wednesday…