Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Age of Confidence

I'm reading Henry Seidel Canby's The Age of Confidence again, but this time I'm leafing through the pages of my own copy. Published in 1934, the book is a memoir of the author's recollections of life in Wilmington, Delaware, between the 1880s and the 1890s.

I read it first in graduate school when I was researching my dissertation on Disney's Celebration, a new-urbanist planned community built in central Florida. I checked it out from musty library stacks after hearing about the book in a much more recent study of small-town nostalgia (whose name now escapes me).

I was touched by The Age of Confidence, particularly the author's calm and knowing references to a kind of tranquility that I could hardly recall from my own youth: "It was a culture with mores, it was a Life in which one quickly knew one’s place, and began that difficult weaving of emotions with experiences that is called growing up, in a set of circumstances which one could not and did not really wish to alter. Time moved slowly while your personality twisted and doubled on its course. The town waited for you. It was going to be there when you were ready for it" (1934, p. 31). Such a town could hardly survive what some authors have called the "malling of America."

My only reference to such small-town life emerged from episodes of The Twilight Zone like "A Stop at Willoughby" and "Walking Distance." I never got into The Andy Griffith Show, and I could never watch Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver without some degree of campy irony. More recently, the film Pleasantville appealed to that nostalgia for a world I never saw.

Happily, Canby's nostalgia is leavened with an honest accounting of the prejudice and provincialism that also marked 19th-century Wilmington. His is no "boys arcadia," no utopia. He states that clearly enough. The author doesn't seem to fully appreciate the distress he inspires with his epithets about the Irish and African Americans, using words I prefer not to repeat in this forum. But he knew nonetheless that his Age of Confidence was built upon a foundation that could not last.

The book is flawed and occasionally too moralistic. But it fulfills a love of mine, the fantasy of time travel. So I recently bought my own copy from eBay. The book is a thing to behold, with its jagged pages and worn dust jacket. I imagine that The Age of Confidence sat unread on some bookshelf for many decades. So I read it again, slowly and with gentle reverence. In a contemporary Age of Terror, it's nice to pause and listen to the sound of brass band on a warm summer night.

Learn more with this essay I wrote more than ten years ago: Nostalgic time, space, and community: Arcadian themes in Canby's The Age of Confidence.

May 11, 2007 follow-up: Finishing up my re-reading of The Age of Confidence, I am delighted to spot a phrase that I'd forgotten from my first reading: "For I believe that while the age of mobility may be better or worse than the age of confidence, there have been these definite, describable losses to check against our gains. We can put our children on wheels to see the world, but we cannot give them the kind of home that any town provided in the nineties, not at any price" (p. 258). I have long used that phrase, "the age of mobility," even teaching a class with that name, without much reflection on where it originated. Secretly, I'd hoped that perhaps I had formed that combination of words from my own design. Now I recall where the phrase surely must have taken root. I'm happy therefore to give credit where credit is due.

See also

Henry Seidel Canby's Alma Mater

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