“From Here to Eternity,” Michael Kinsley’s rumination on baby boomers and death in the current Vanity Fair, is a piece almost any boomer (like me) would feel obligated to comment on. Kinsley observes that, as death approaches, the generation born in the roughly 18 years after 1945 will turn an eye toward its post-mortem reputation. Gone or going is the focus on the best in toys, schools, jobs, sex, vacations, and even longevity.
We boomers, Kinsley says, will soon engage in a reputation “competition.” The implication is clear that those borne by the women of the designated Greatest Generation, apparently spurred on by the lucky survivors of World War II, will always be toeing the starting blocks, hoping to break the tape first and achieve the immortality sneered at by Shelley in “Ozymandias.”
Kinsley eventually narrows his discussion to attempts to achieve permanence through writing, and his article is a witty, sharp object that destroys a balloon labelled “Human Vanity.” But some of his observations en route to that pop! strike me as, well, odd.
“In the celebrity culture in which we live,” Kinsley begins, “a negative reputation for all time is better than no reputation at all.” Perhaps he means to be snarky here, but that sentence is very like many I’ve marked on college freshman papers with a blue-penciled comment like: “Really? How can that be demonstrated as such?” (Many of the freshmen I teach actually believe, for example, that magazine photographs of overly thin women lower all women’s self-esteem, and that we’re all immersed in a “celebrity culture.”)
Next Kinsley points to the vain desire to see one’s name hammered or chiseled into the stone of a hospital pavilion or museum. Finally, though, he arrives at the observation, borrowed from an academic, that — for writers, at least — permanent reputation requires only “threshold competence.”
Writers remembered and forgotten
It is true that Melville and Hawthorne are pretty permanently remembered despite those unreadable sections of Moby Dick and the awful opening of The Scarlet Letter. And maybe some college ought to be teaching Every Man Dies Alone, Hans Fallada’s novel about German resistance to the Nazis. But let me return to Kinsley’s assertion that what’s “coming next” is the “ultimate baby-boomer competition.”
Does a longish tongue-in-cheek magazine article suffice to wipe away an investment banker’s honestly meant charitable impulse to give some of her extra money to medicine or education? Perhaps. But how about the rest of us: those who lack Scrooge McDuck’s vault (or, perhaps, the ability to write with the allegedly minimal competence needed to enter the famous writers’ lottery)?
Most of my generation knows perfectly well that competitions come to an end, and that we will likely be remembered only by our relatives, friends, patients, students, others we’ve helped, and some acquaintances.
Learning our limits
I learned this lesson early as a high school track and field athlete, working doggedly at sprinting for three years. I became considerably faster — for a white guy. Our team won the state AAA championship. Today that achievement, plus $2.25, will get me a ride on a SEPTA bus or trolley.
Other members of my less-than-greatest generation learned humility as well. I know one fellow who recently visited what my family refers to, laughingly, as our office; it’s where we iron our clothes, and where I’ve put my mother’s former curio cabinet in one corner and filled it with some baseball and football “collectables,” a handful of which might some day buy my wife or daughter a few dinners out or a trip somewhere not terribly far away.
“All this stuff!” my friend remarked, before allowing that “it looks nice.” Earlier that day he had told me about ridding his home of extraneous things. Yet years ago this person seriously argued about the truth on T-shirts of the day that read: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
Farther back in the April Vanity Fair is an article about Peter Arno, the legendary New Yorker cartoonist who lampooned the behavior of his own upper class. Arno is often credited with having invented the one-image, one-caption format we’re all familiar with. When asked about that, he said, “I like to think I did [invent it], but nothing so simple could be ‘invented’.” Arno likely knew that Robert Benchley had tried the format as early as 1909. Ben Schwartz’s article clearly adds to Arno’s possibly reaching what Kinsley identifies as “permanent” status for a writer’s reputation — recognition 100 years out from his or her death. Maybe 50 years for cartoonists is a fair number. Arno, who died in 1968, has two years to go. Most people alive have no idea who he was.
Some boomers now have little museums in corners; most have a little Arno-like humility. We know that we may be remembered only en masse — for some, as parts of a generation that tried to do something “for everybody” — steer the country one way or another, like the old guy whose bumper sticker I saw this week that read: “Bernie — because fuck this shit.” Others pushed for Reagan-style conservatism, women’s rights, or civil rights. Many just tried to keep their jobs.
That’s going to have to do.