We humans enjoy remarkable communications technologies. We experience unprecedented booms on Wall Street, rapid globalization, almost daily rags-to-riches stories (especially out of the San Francisco Bay Area). At the same time, we witness (and, in increasing numbers, participate in) extraordinary cultural revolutions while a “partisan and scurrilous” news media report on the phenomena and glorify the ensuing violence. While all of that is happening, Christian conservatives battle what they refer to as cultural decadence and anti-immigration sentiment is high. To add to the chaos, America’s political parties are woefully unprepared to deal with the turbulence.
Sound familiar? It should. The above paragraph could have been ripped from today’s headlines. Instead, it is paraphrased from an article I came across (while researching my first historical novel, Embracing the Elephant), written for TIME magazine and entitled 1848: When America Came of Age. That’s right, 1848. One hundred and seventy-two years ago.
Historian Tariq Ali says that history rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away. We need only look to our history 172 years ago to know this is true.
Where is our progress? When do we learn? When do we advance and recognize that all the technological advancements in the world, all the wealth in the universe, all the political power of a nation does not help the human race in terms of maturity and psychological health? The human issues we face today are no different from the issues faced throughout the ages. Yet we don’t address them or, if we do, true and lasting change has been glacial, at best.
You may ask why an author of historical fiction is complaining about slow human growth. Because it enhances my writing. I can more accurately describe the political chaos and divisiveness of our nation’s capital in the years prior to the American Civil War (which is the setting for my new novel, A Peculiar Peace), because that is what’s happening across this country now – I need only watch a news program or read a newspaper to know. The partisan machinations of today are little different from those that went on behind the scenes more than 100 years ago. How relevant is that?
And why do I also use the word “Truth” in the title of this post? Because although I’m writing of a time more than a century in the past, I want to stay true to human nature. Therefore, although I imbue my main characters with a strong desire for social justice in a time when that was not common, I also recognize that changes in human behavior are slow and hard to come by. I want my characters to be of their time. By that I mean that I have one protagonist taking the bold step to hire a black man for a job traditionally done by whites, yet still have him comfortable paying that man less than he would a white man (much as women today are paid less than their male counterparts for the same work). Although my other protagonist does not see color when giving medical aid, she does not protest the blatant segregation practiced in the hospital in which she works. I would like to believe that neither of my characters would find their respective behaviors acceptable were they living today, but in 1859 the social justice they did practice was already considered “advanced.”
I take heart in knowing that some progress has been made in the 160 years since the beginning of the American Civil War. I can only hope that, someday, it will be harder to describe a society still struggling with racism and sexism. But for the time being, I will hear the echoes and use the headlines of today to inform the fiction I write, confident that strides will continue, however glacial they may be. We fought for justice in 1860. We fought again in 1960. We fight again now. Someday we will see real change. Someday.