Sunday, February 7, 2010

H.G. and Me

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

If H.G. Wells had bequeathed me his Time Machine, where would I set the dial? Maybe it’s the lawyer in me but I have to go with it depends. Like choosing which scene to write based on my mood (I write non-sequentially), picking an era depends on where my head is.

If I am feeling like my usual spunky self, I want to go to a time and place where I could make a difference. Could I hang with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War? All around her soldiers were dying far from their English homes and there she was, sleeves rolled up, figuring out a way to make a difference. And that was when she wasn’t writing or statistically analyzing her results so her success could be repeated and ultimately become nursing as we know it today. Every time you seek medical care, think of this woman with the noise and the smoke and no guidebook figuring out what needed to be done and doing it. I’d like to think I could be the Lady who knew and learned from the Lady with the Lamp. Maybe I could have even been a go-between between Flo and Mary Seacole and helped them incorporate Florence’s more traditional approach with Mary’s homeopathic one for an even better result. Heck, health care is still fighting this battle. If these two amazing women had a mutual friend playing the dual role of Devil’s Advocate and Henry Kissinger, today’s health care might be eons more integrated than it actually is. That was a moment I would have liked to be part of.

Now if I’m wearing my adventurous hat, or in this case my Gibson Girl sun shade, I’m in Africa in the 1920s with Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham. It’s colonial Africa with a significant British contingent sharply dressed in their pressed linen uniforms and drinking afternoon tea but I’ve embraced the native people and not only respect their culture, I’m fascinated by the native rituals I see daily. When I’m not at a polo match, or helping at a local tribal school, I’m flying. Literally. In my own plane, defying gender stereotypes, I take to the sky in a 20 horsepower Gull with my cap and goggles, soaring above the lush veldt. At night, I am seducing or being seduced by amazing men of means, power, intellect and imagination. Absolutely this should be a stop on my time travel tour.

If I’m feeling a need to change the world, I would set my sights on 1939. It’s the time of the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt has mandated an unprecedented investment in American infrastructure, in its culture, its future, its art. In 1935, the Federal Theater Project is born. Plays are written, stories published. The writers, actors, producers, directors represent every spot on the social and political spectrum. Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA, promised free, adult and uncensored works of art supported by the taxpayers. Four years later, while the WPA continues its mission, the Federal Theater Project is dead. Its funding cut off. The very first victim of fear politics as invented by Joseph McCarthy. It wasn’t just censorship. It was annihilation. The first strangle hold on free speech and expression. A blue print for politically correct artistic pablum. It got worse, of course, for artists with powerful voices and socially challenging ideas. The House on Unamerican Activities called hundreds of witnesses to turn in fellow citizens, friends, who dared to think new ideas or even to listen to people who might whisper softly about them. How many more Oscars would Elia Kazan won (he won three) if HUAC hadn’t tainted his ability to produce his art? Was Dashiell Hammett’s loss of productivity and increased alcoholism tied to the time he spent in jail for refusing to name names? What other works were lost to this madness? Would it have all been different if someone, anyone, had raised their hand during that 1939 committee meeting and said, “It’s art. It’s supposed to challenge you. Is smothering it what we really want to do? Is that who we are as readers, theater goers and cultural guardians?” Yep, my political me chooses 1939 and a quiet moment that lead to a storm.

In rereading this blog, I have had three personal insights. First, my inner control freak thinks the future isn’t written yet so heading in that direction is a waste of a good trip and frequent flier miles. Second, I have no future at the Star Fleet Academy. That prime directive thing is a deal breaker. Third, I’d better keep plugging away so that when this question gets posed to the next generation of writers, at least one of them considers saying they would use their shot at the time machine to blog with me today. Even I didn’t know what to expect. That is a good day in any period of history.

Congratulations to Kelli Stanley on the release of her new book, City of Dragons. She’ll take you on a trip without the luggage restriction.

Thanks for reading.



Shane Gericke said...

Excellent fly-around to other dimensions! Perhaps if Florence Nightingale were around today, health care reform might actually happen.

I have strong feelings about Elia Kazan. Yes, he was an artistic genius. But he richly deserved his banishment for testifying to HUAC. At a time when America needed its public figures to stand up to the outrage that was McCarthyism, he turned in eight of his friends for slaughter. That's not forgivable. These days, every film critic says he should be excused because he was a victim of his times. I disagree; many other artists refused to cooperate, and took the blacklist rather than submit. He, on the other hand, put his friends on blacklists.

To save us all from that nightmarish time, perhaps we should take the time machine to Joe McCarthy's Wisconsin and make sure he never got elected to office!

Gabi said...

I would take the time machine but I can't handle the Wisconsin winters (I'm from there). On the other hand, I'd like to think we are capable of learning and that we "needed" Joe to say never again.

I agree Elia Kazan earned some of what he got but without the social context this runs to a lack of dinner engagements not denial of his ability to make a living. I do think standing up was the only moral choice but I also believe in second chances and personal growth. I hope he found that, at least.

Kelli Stanley said...

Wonderful post, Gabi!! :)

1939 is a key year in so many ways. And unfortunately, McCarthy was the poster boy of hysteria that was around long before he took office.

The earlier HUAC actually figures in the sequel to City of Dragons ... and it's scary how the anti-liberal bias and hatred of FDR spilled into post-war hysteria.

My heroes at that time where those who stood up to the blacklist--like actress Marsha Hunt, whom I had the privilege of meeting at a Noir City film festival. Or Myrna Loy, or Humphrey Bogart.

Kazan was a brilliant director, but he will always represent the worst of political expediency and self-interest. I don't excuse him--or Polanski. A crime is a crime is a crime.