Testing the Human Spirit

In a time of national, and especially international travail, usual customs are stretched to the limit accommodate the non-normal.

Wartime provides a classic instance, and journalism does not lack for investigation of the altered ways of living.

The blackouts, curfews, and shortages of war, described regularly in such journalism, provide some analogy to our current pandemic. A key difference is the enforced civil isolation required for the latter; that’s different than even a blackout, even a curfew.

It makes reporting a challenge, since the usual places of investigation – bars, restaurants, shops, hotels – are not hosting guests. On the other hand, social media provides inventive ways to report on current living, fuelled by innovative technologies.

A wartime report on life in Imperial Japan is instructive, contributed by a U.S. diplomat who had been interned, and released after 18 months. There are surprises. Despite its spartan existence the population did some social drinking, albeit this was “frowned on”. And despite an iron discipline imposed on everyday life, a black market functioned.

This 1943 report, by American correspondent A.D. Rothman is another example. He wrote it after a tour of American cities that year.

Conditions were grim: beer and liquor short, hotels overwhelmed, housing tight, restaurant menus pared to the minimum, and taxes climbing.

Yet, this news report in January 1944, on Miami, Florida, offered a marked contrast. It was entitled, perhaps ironically, “Wartime Living”. Even the writer seemed surprised at the relative normality. Fashionable clubs were in full-tilt. Mass sporting events such as the Orange Bowl, and betting at the track, well-frequented.

Accommodations were sufficient (hotels, apartments) if not cheap. Most enjoying the “everyday” were civilian although some worked in war factories. A complement of American forces was in the area, stationed or on furlough.

I’ve written of wartime wine, beer, and food tastings of the Wine and Food Society in New York, a kind of counterpart to the club scene in Miami.

In a word, some parts of society managed to enjoy a stylish life, while for others in America things were much harder, not to mention on the fronts.

The geographical edges of the country, at least the urban centres, tended to exhibit a relative normality. Even though it was an important naval centre San Francisco did, not just through entertainment and other amenities but even in politics. At the height of the war the Bay Area had a bohemian poetry movement that helped spark the mid-1950s San Francisco Renaissance.

Yet further, a tiny but vocal pacifist movement was active, an atypical phenomenon still examined by historians.

Finally, an Australian journalist assessed the state of wartime humour in this account.

His words below are worth pondering in our grim time as well.

There is nothing drearier in the dreary atmosphere of war time than cold-blooded attempts to cheer us up. Deliberate fun-making seems out of place, and only emphasises the tragic note. But out of every war, as out of every tremendous human experience, there emerges a real humour, produced not by plan, but by the strange, gallant reaction of the human spirit against the forces of darkness.

Will this upholding of the human spirit 80 years ago prove prophetic for 2020? We will see.

N.B. Our next post continues this theme.

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