Thursday, August 31, 2006

Saying goodbye to ourselves

[Preface: I wrote this essay for the November 2004 issue of the Historical Novels Review. Since the fall semester has just begun at Eastern Illinois U., and the freshmen are looking younger than ever, it seemed an appropriate time to repost it. This was meant to be a discussion on why we shouldn’t pigeonhole ourselves in our definitions of “historical fiction,” but also why we can’t help doing it; it can be read as a sequel of sorts to the definition article/conference talk that's posted on the HNS website (which I wrote two years earlier, in 2002).

If you want to read the current Mindset List, published annually by Beloit College in Wisconsin, you can find it here. Enjoy.]

As some of you know, I work full-time as a reference librarian in a university library. Each autumn, when the freshmen arrive on campus, the librarians remark on how much younger the new students look than last year’s crop. Of course, they’re the same age as always, while we’re the ones who are growing older. Nobody really wants to admit that. Still, it is true that the age gap between the library staff and brand new university students gets wider all the time.

Each year, academics across the United States refer to the famous “Mindset List,” produced by Beloit College in Wisconsin, to put themselves in the shoes of the young people that they’re instructing. The list takes elements of history and popular culture and views them from the perspective of the younger generation. At my library, we print out each new edition as it’s published, and place it at the reference desk for our own edification.

Most of today’s new university students were born in 1985 or 1986, and are considered the Class of 2008. Here are some history-based examples from recent years’ Mindset Lists that describe their viewpoints. The details given in parentheses are my additions. For these students:

- Most of them know someone who was born with the help of a test tube. (Louise Brown, first test tube baby, born July 25, 1978)

- They have no idea that Americans were ever held hostage in Iran. (Last hostages freed January 20, 1981)

- They have no meaningful recollection of the Reagan era, and did not know he had ever been shot. (March 30, 1981)

- There has always been an heir to the heir to the British throne. (Prince William born June 21, 1982)

- The drinking age has always been 21 throughout the country (USA). (National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, signed into law on July 17)

- The precise location of the Titanic has always been known. (Wreck discovered September 1, 1985)

As its co-editor Tom McBride, Keefer Professor of the Humanities at Beloit College, states: “The Mindset List, among other things, is a reminder of that [new] world—a world that makes education a tougher yet more fascinating job than ever. In saying hello to the new generation, which [educators] labor mightily to understand, but with mixed results, they are saying good-bye to themselves.”

Today’s new university students have a vastly different perspective on the past than even people of Generation X – those individuals born in the 1960s and 1970s – do. Each generation has its own perspective on what connotes history, and it can be a very personal definition. It’s an odd kind of culture shock. As historical novel readers, we’re used to envisioning the lives of people who lived generations, or at least one generation, earlier than ourselves. It can be disconcerting to realize, via publications such as the Mindset List, that younger generations might feel about us the way we feel about, well, characters in historical fiction.

According to the official HNS definition, a historical novel should have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who wasn’t alive at the time. We acknowledge that this definition is arbitrary, because we can’t please everyone. It benefits us to be precise. After all, we can’t review everything. But the more I think about people’s varying definitions of “history,” particularly those of the younger generation, it occurs to me that it benefits us just as much to be flexible.

This point became clearer to me when looking through the backlist catalogue of Scholastic, a major publisher of children’s and young adult fiction. They publish four series of fictionalized diaries of teenagers and older children who lived in different historical periods. I recently spotted one of the latest entries from the Dear America series, Ellen Emerson White’s novel Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Diary of Molly McKenzie Flaherty. Set on the American home front in 1968 Boston, Massachusetts, it describes one teenage girl’s personal Vietnam-era experience as she volunteers in a military hospital, sees war protests firsthand, and fears for her brother, fighting for his country on the other side of the world. Is it set more than fifty years in the past? No. Was the author alive at the time the novel depicts? Yes. But is it historical fiction? Members of the novel’s teenage audience, who were born nearly twenty years after the novel takes place, would probably think so.

I can also recall, while growing up, being fascinated by Judy Blume’s 1977 children’s novel Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, about a ten-year-old Jewish girl from New Jersey who winters in Miami Beach with her mother and brother. Like any child of her age, her curiosity runs away with her at times. She dreams of swimming as beautifully as movie star Esther Williams, with her elegant bearing and super-white teeth. Having been deeply affected by the death of her cousin Lila in the Holocaust, Sally seriously wonders if her next-door neighbor may be Adolf Hitler in disguise. Back then, I didn’t really care whether Blume’s novel was “historical fiction” or not – I just thought it was a good story. But it did make me consider how World War II influenced the day-to-day lives of Jewish Americans, many of whom lost family members in concentration camps overseas. They didn’t teach you about this sort of thing in school – how average people were changed by historical events – and they probably still don’t. But this is what historical fiction is all about.

Lest anyone feel I’m being pedantic by selecting two children’s books as examples, take Charlotte Bingham’s The Moon at Midnight, a fairly new saga set in the fictional English fishing village of Bexham in 1962, over forty years ago. One of Bingham’s main points was to show the contrasting values between members of the Greatest Generation and their children, who don’t seem to care about the sacrifices their parents made for them during World War II. Reading this novel, its historicity is well evident, at least to a reader (like me) who didn’t live through those events firsthand.

All of these thoughts were brought home to me via a discussion on the Internet discussion group rec.arts.books.hist-fiction, on which fans of the genre post messages about their interests. Several readers agreed that they couldn’t conceive of “historical fiction” as anything set during or after World War II, because it was an event they lived through. On the other hand, historical fiction can be a valuable tool in demonstrating the differences between now and then, even if the “then” isn’t that far away in actual years. Reading these novels can be a real eye-opener, showing us how many things – social conditions, politics, and the influence of contemporary events in our daily lives – have changed.

It may be true, as an HNS member suggested in a recent letter to the editor, that many readers of this magazine prefer to read about eras long past. I enjoy this type of setting myself, and they’re certainly popular with reviewers. But occasionally reading a novel set within the last forty years, one with significant historical content, brings home to me the fact that times have changed considerably more than I might believe.

Of course, there’s another advantage to reading these novels. Thanks to historical novelists who write about the recent past, a past that many of us still remember well, we don’t have to “say good-bye to ourselves,” as the Mindset List suggests. We can relive those times just as often as we’d like – and we can introduce the younger generations to them, too.


  1. This is a fascinating topic!

    The concept of "Mindset List" interests me because, as a historian, my own mindset is so messed up by the facts I've gathered, more than specific remembered events that occurred during my own lifetime. And yet we are, most definitely, affected by the times in which we live! As are our reading tastes and musical tastes and choices of leisure activities and how we access information...and so on.

    Thanks for posting a link to the full list, I'd only seen/heard about portions of it in the media.

  2. Definitely agree to everything you said, Margaret. I work with university students all the time and am continually surprised at their perspectives on history and life in general. This week I've been giving a lot of library tours and have been demoing the microfilm reader/printers. None of the folks on my tours (aside from the prof) had ever seen microfilm, let alone used it. They don't want to hear that I used to do all my research using print indexes and catalog cards.

  3. I think technical development is the best measure for time nowadays. I still remember blueprint copies and computers that took up an entire room, and how every student at university was green with envy because I already had an Atari instead of a typewriter (the advantage of having computer geeks for father and brother, lol); I remember slow, loud needle printers and black and white TV with only three channels; my LP collection is still larger than my CD collection.

    I'm old enough to still remember the short 'reign' of Pope John Paul 1st and the scandal after Willi Brand was found to be involved in that espionage affair. The cold war was part of my daily life, especially so close to the border that separated Germany - yes, there were times we did fear the Russians would come over. Later, it was the APO and the Red Brigades, the Baader/Meinhoff gang that made the news. And the US presidents were named Nixon, Ford and Carter. :)

    Gosh, I feel old now. ;)

  4. I still have a black and white TV in our downstairs bedroom. It gets about 3 channels, too.

    It makes me feel old when the students call me ma'am. On the other hand, the women in our Acquisitions department call me "kiddo." Talk about mixed messages. :)

  5. Reminds me of the day I brought my Tandy computer home . . .

  6. My first computer was an Apple IIe, I think. I used to play all these text-based computer games on it. The graphics were not very impressive, really.

  7. Excellent essay, Sarah. Thanks!

    I'm frightened by the Mindset List, BTW. I bet that doesn't bode well for me. {g}

  8. Glad you liked it!

    For some of the things on the Mindset Lists, I admit I fit those categories too... but I did used to play the license plate game thing in the car all the time.

  9. Anonymous8:32 AM

    I grew up in the 50s and 60s. Back then I considered the era of my parents growing up as 'the olden days' and naively believed that we had advanced so much in technology (cars, planes, televisions, movies, etc) that our era would never be considered that. When I look back at those thoughts, I laugh! Now things change dramatically year by year, and when the young people now consider what we didn't have back then, I am sure they consider it very much the olden days - and probably even into the 70s and 80s, as well. Very interesting article. I enjoyed it.

    1. I grew up listening to Our Miss Brooks and other radio programs on reel-to-reel... my father collected them (after hearing them live when he was a kid in the '50s) and played them for me, in the early '80s. They were fabulous. Today's young people may find the concept odd in itself, plus most of them have never seen actual tapes. Or dial telephones, or manual typewriters. It's so true that things are changing quickly, especially technology.

      Thanks for your comments!

  10. Holy history, Batman! Today's kids sure have it rough, with Google, iPads, Smartphones, etc. I remember the long, slow dialing of rotary phones, learning to type on a manual typewriter and thinking self-correcting tape on the Selectric was genius. LOL

    Thanks for the insight. Sad to think kids nowadays know very little, despite having so much information at their fingertips.

    1. It makes me feel pretty ancient, though I'm really NOT all that old! Between the self-correcting tape and Liquid Paper, I had it made back then :)

  11. Very insightful, thought-provoking and relevant Sarah. In the last century, the world has made more technological advances than any other century. I have a friend who is 103 years old. It's just blows me away when I try to envision all the changes Emilie has witnessed. Then, sometimes, when I talk with my boys (mid-20's) they look at me with a blank face when I mention something that was maybe 10 - 20 years before they were born (yes, it makes me feel ancient). Maybe we need to be more open-minded about our definition, depending on whether a novel has significant historical value that our children or grandchildren (not yet there, thank goodness!) could learn from.

    1. Thanks, Darlene - and wow, 103 is something! My grandmother was 96 when she died, and I wish I'd asked her more about the times when she was growing up.

      I just spent the morning teaching a group of high school students about the library. They're at the point where they think our older technology is fascinating and want to know how it works, rather than thinking about it as outdated and/or useless. I liked their attitude.

      Also, I read a review not long ago of a YA novel about the Challenger explosion, and it was described as historical fiction. That was a bit of a shock :) On the other hand, when I look at photos taken of the mid-80s, they have a definite look about them that doesn't say "today." Things were different then, although it may be harder for us to grasp... it's a more gradual shift for those of us who lived through those times.