James Wilkinson and us

As usual, it all comes down to perspective.

We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis.  We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly.  And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.

But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air.  It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day.  It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency.  But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true.  We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084.  If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.

Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history.  But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead.  I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War.  Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years.  People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive?  Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?)  It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.

Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life.  But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it.  And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.

I

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