`History moves through all of us all the time'
WHEN I was in the third grade, our teacher asked us to fill out an envelope with our ``complete address.'' NAME: Larry Wright
STREET ADDRESS: 1126 S. 6th St.
CITY: Ponca City
COUNTRY: United States of America
CONTINENT: North America
GALAXY: The Milky Way
So mine read.
I recall, as I filled out each space on the envelope, the sensation of feeling smaller and smaller and smaller. The true measure of my insignificance in the universe had been revealed to me.
Of course it was easy, growing up in Oklahoma and later in Texas, to feel insignificant. The centers of life and power - New York, London, Paris - seemed as far away as the Pleiades. To be in Dallas in '63, at the age of 16, was to sense that one was living offstage, in the wings - that nothing important would ever happen to us. We were nobodies living nowhere.
Later, when there were reports of Dallas schoolchildren laughing at the news of the assassination of President Kennedy, I wondered if I hadn't laughed myself. It was such a relief, such a release of anxiety, such a shocking turn of events. Something had happened! Our lives could change after all - they had changed already! At last we had become significant. In the minds of most Americans, we had become the people who murdered John Kennedy.
Twenty years later, I began writing my autobiography, ``In the New World,'' which opens in Dallas in 1960, with the Kennedy-Nixon presidential contest, and ends in the same city in 1984, with Ronald Reagan's triumphant renomination at the Republican National Convention. The book chronicles the rise of what I call the new world - that is, the urban Sunbelt, which was just beginning its explosive growth at the end of the Eisenhower years and would reach its apogee of power and influence in the Reagan era.
It's a personal account of growing up with America - a raw, adolescent country that was just beginning to understand its new place in the world after the great war of my parents' generation. It is, in some respects, an autobiography of the children of the World War II generation - the vast bulge of population known as the Baby Boom. It is told from the perspective of one who was a Dallasite during the Kennedy assassination, a white Southerner during the civil rights movement, a man during the women's movement, and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war.
It's curious to hear the frequent reaction of my readers that I was fortunate to have grown up ``in the middle of everything that was happening.'' That's not the way it felt at the time. The great joy in writing the autobiography was to discover that history moves through all of us all the time.
It was easy to see this in the case of my father, who was a farm boy in the dust bowl of Kansas until the winds of history lifted him up and carried him off to save civilization in Europe, and then to Japan, and then Korea, and finally deposited the young hero in Dallas, where he became a prosperous banker and one of the builders of the new world.
But history was also with me, and with my generation as we grew to maturity - many of us in the suburbs of this new world our parents had made for us. We were already a phenomenon, the largest and most powerful generation our country had ever produced. We saw the contradictions between what America stood for and what it claimed to be. History was with us as we argued with ourselves and with our parents over what kind of country we wanted to have. History was present at our dining room table as my father and I fought our generational war, blazing away at each other like the Monitor and the Merrimac, about the war, the hippies, the draft, McGovern and Nixon. History was with me as I sat praying about my duty to my country, and deciding, finally, that Vietnam was a war I couldn't fight. Each of these moments was a part of a larger movement that was occurring in families all across America, tearing the generations apart, causing the country to take stock of itself and change directions. This was history being made.
The great danger, I found, in writing such a book is the received memory of ``the way it was.'' It's like a familiar rut in the road. The danger is particularly great for my generation, which looks at itself as a mass. One's memories get swallowed up in a larger generational notion of how we were. The landmarks - the assassinations, the war, the Beatles, Woodstock, etc. - have become such a part of our consciousness that we forget the way we really were. So I treated the younger me much as I do subjects I write about for magazines: I interviewed friends, reread newspapers, secured my love letters from my former girlfriend. My parents were especially helpful - for years they've written their own autobiographies in the form of letters to their children. The research wasn't always pleasing, but it was nearly always surprising.
The great lesson, I found, is the danger of conventional wisdom. The record of history is never clear. But as I look back at my opinions in the '60s and '70s - about Kennedy, Nixon, civil rights, the war - I realize how often I was wrong. Yet my thinking then was what almost everyone was thinking. Perhaps I was afraid to think otherwise. So much mischief and unhappiness have been caused in America by rallying around subtle, beguiling, insidious lies. So one message, especially to students, is ``do your own thinking.''
Reading autobiographies has always been a special pleasure. Now, in writing my life story, it's wonderful to hear people say they could see in it some of their life, too.
Perhaps we didn't grow up in the same city or go to the same schools, or come to similar conclusions about who we are or what we want. But these readers see experiences in my life that remind them of their own - moments when they felt as I did: the arguments with my father, for instance, or working up the nerve to propose to the woman I would marry, or deciding it was time to venture into the deep water of parenthood.
Most of us have more in common than we suspect, and this is the great discovery we make in reading about other people's lives. For in doing so we relive our own, and we come to understand something of our own place in the universe.
Lawrence Wright is the author of ``In the New World: Growing up with America, 1960-1984,'' Alfred Knopf, 1988.