A Few of Our Biographies:
Ten Reasons Why
One of the most famous sentences in rock 'n' roll criticism came forth in 1968 from the typewriter of a writer named Langdon Winner:
The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released.
The Congress of Vienna was an international gathering in 1814-15 that redrew the map of Europe after the fall of Napoleon. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released by the Beatles on June 1, 1967, setting a tone for the Summer of Love with such songs as "With a Little Help From My Friends" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."
Winner elaborates on Pepper's impact in '67:
At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food – Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend – the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.
Langdon Winner was, and is, a bright fellow. He is a noted scholar today, an expert on technological change. His comment about "Sgt. Pepper" is a thought-provoking tribute to the power of the Beatles and of hope. Perhaps, by comparing a rock album to a peace conference, he is making intentional use of hyperbole. Perhaps he's interested in getting people to look up "Congress of Vienna." Perhaps he's momentarily succumbing to the monumental self-absorption of the Boomer generation, which was at flood tide in the late '60s. Whatever his motivation or intent, the end result is ahistorical nonsense.
Here are ten moments between June, 1815, and June, 1967, that did a better job than Pepper of temporarily unifying Western Civilization and/or the globe.
By the way, the results of the Congress of Vienna didn't unify Western Civilization at all. Historians R.R. Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer write that the congress gave "no satisfaction" to millions of "nationalists and democrats" and "was a disappointment even to many liberals...."
1. The end of World War II in 1945. Democracy and capitalism seemed imperiled in the 1930s and well into the '40s. "As early as 1930," writes historian John Lukacs, "it seemed (and this was three years before Hitler's coming to power in Germany) that the rise of authoritarian dictatorships in the wake of the failure of parliamentary and capitalist democracy was a natural and worldwide phenomenon....By and large, democracy was in retreat. It gave the impression of institutions and ideas that were tired and outworn." Anything, said lots of folks, would be better than messy, unorganized democracy, which couldn't put bread on tables and couldn't make the trains run on time. The triumph of the Allies in the spring and summer of 1945 was a victory for the better angels of our nature; it unleashed, for millions of people, a wave of happiness (a sort of exhausted happiness perhaps). One example of how this feeling was manifested in public is cited by historian Lukacs: on V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day), "there rose a mass demonstration of the people of Moscow facing the (U.S.) embassy building, unexpected and unprecedented in the history of the Soviet Union. It was a spontaneous and enormous wave of popular gratitude for how much America had helped Russia during the war." Unity, nyet? A residue of cheerful optimism endured for several months in many parts of the world, at least until the main Nuremberg Trial, which started in late 1945, when people began to fully grasp the depth of Nazi, and human, depravity. A few months later came the first rumblings of the Cold War.
2. The end of World War I in 1918. You want cool music wafting through the air? Try this rockin' scene from Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, in New York City, described by historian Stanley Weintraub in "A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War: November 1918" (1985):
On the teeming East Side the shrill, wavering notes of shofars, ram's horn trumpets which in biblical times sounded from the hilltops of Israel to summon the people to festivals and holy days, roused dwellers in the tenements at dawn. Blown by ghetto patriarchs from rooftops, chimneys, and fire-escape stairs, they pierced the din of sirens and bells, sending elderly people to their windows and young people to dancing in the streets.
Millions of people felt happy and relieved for months - not only because the slaughter had stopped, but also because President Woodrow Wilson had embarked on a seemingly unstoppable quest for lasting peace. Wilson in 1919 "inspired the world as no leader in history," says the documentary film "Paris 1919." He was called "the god of justice." His "Fourteen Points" were unifying world-wide ideals, notes historian Margaret MacMillan:
Across Europe there were squares, streets, railway stations and parks bearing Wilson's name. Wall posters cried, 'We Want a Wilson Peace.' In Italy, soldiers knelt in front of his picture....The leaders of the Arab revolt in the desert, Polish nationalists in Warsaw, rebels in the Greek islands, students in Peking, Koreans trying to shake off Japan's control, all took the Fourteen Points as their inspiration.
Woodrow Wilson - rock star!
3. The Great Exhibition of 1851. Representatives of 40 nations gathered in London at history's first world’s fair to display arts, crafts, and industries. The exhibition was, to some extent, a cocksure demonstration of British power, but at the same time, many of its six million visitors came away convinced that science, technology, and free trade could guide humanity to unity, peace, and prosperity. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria and the key organizer of the exhibition, remarked, "We are living at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end to which indeed all history points – the realization of the unity of mankind." (A wordy Victorian way of saying, "It’s getting better all the time.") Historian G.M. Young says that if a person could pick one decade of the 1800s in which to be young, the 1850s would be the choice, because of its optimism about the future, pervasive good will, and astonishing economic growth. (G.M. Young seems to refer to Europe; in the U.S., the second half of the 1850s was marked by the ramp-up to civil war.) See here for a profile of Prince Albert.
4. Charles Lindbergh Jr.'s solo, non-stop transatlantic airplane flight, the first such venture ever, completed on May 21, 1927. Aviation in 1927 was a thrilling symbol of the potential of technology to change the world for the better. When Lindbergh landed safely in Paris, the world began to think in new ways about interconnectedness. Indeed, in the glorious spring and summer of 1927, with the global economy booming and Babe Ruth hitting home runs, some Americans felt that everything was possible. (Also in 1927, the first transatlantic phone call was made, from New York City to London.) Lindbergh entranced the millions - he was "youthful, optimistic, heroic - and incredibly, impossibly famous," writes scholar Brian Horrigan. A combination, let's say, of astronaut John Glenn and the Beatles.
5. Laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. The completion of this project allowed Europe and America to communicate at the speed of light rather than the speed of ship. (The 1866 cable was not the first attempt in this realm, but it was the first such system that kept working.)
6. The Great Depression of the 1930s. The world was united in misery. At the same time, many people found new ways to pull up their socks, join hands, link arms, and get through the days and nights together. The spirit of cooperation and community became remarkable in many quarters.
7. The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The British Empire in 1897 comprised a quarter of the earth’s population and influenced much of the rest. The Brits threw a celebration in June of this year to honor the 60th anniversary of the reign of their queen. The Times of London got so giddy it forgot all about the Great Exhibition of 1851: "History may be searched, and searched in vain, to discover so wonderful an exhibition of allegiance and brotherhood amongst so many myriads of men."
8. The assassination and funeral of President John F. Kennedy, November 22 and 25, 1963. Much of the world united in grief, and joined (fleetingly) in commitment to a better tomorrow. "It was the first worldwide mourning in history," writes author Richard N. Goodwin, "and perhaps the last." Television played a large role in the unifying power of these four days; people in many countries watched closely - in living rooms, on streets, huddled around generator-powered TVs in villages. French President Charles De Gaulle said in Paris that weekend, "I am stunned. They are crying all over France," and decided he had to attend the funeral service on Monday, Nov. 25. In Moscow, Andrei Gromyko, the flinty Soviet foreign minister, paid his respects at the American embassy and wept as he departed. In Africa, a native bushman walked 10 miles through open country to say to an American, "I have lost a friend and I am so sorry." See here for a history of these days.
9. Charles Dickens and Little Nell. Dickens was a "genuinely international figure" writes historian Eric Hobsbawm, known and loved by people in many countries of all ages and backgrounds, even by illiterate folk, because his works were often read aloud around fireplaces and in public houses. In 1840-41 Dickens published his novel "The Old Curiosity Shop" in magazine installments. Vast numbers of people became obsessed with the fate of one of the work’s protagonists, Little Nell, who, in early chapters, appeared to be doomed. In 1841, at the New York City waterfront, a ship from Britain was met by a crowd with one question on its collective mind: "Is Little Nell dead?" The shattering answer shouted from the ship: "Yes." In England, the actor and theater manager William Macready wrote in his diary after learning of Nell’s fate, "I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain." The historian Thomas Carlyle wept with grief. Irish politician Daniel O’Connell read of Nell’s demise while traveling by train, burst into tears, cried "He should not have killed her!" and threw the pages out the window.
10. The Beatles in 1964. The peak of the band’s international popularity, and perhaps unifying power as well, didn't occur in 1967 with "Sgt. Pepper" but in the eight-month period from February 9, 1964, when their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" cracked open the U.S. and world to them, through the week in April when their records occupied the top five places on the Billboard singles chart, to the late summer/early autumn when the film "A Hard Day’s Night" was greeted with stunned delight by mainstream critics and found a huge audience not only among fans but among previous Beatle-haters in the over-21 crowd. "Sgt. Pepper," to be sure, is their most famous album, but their impact in '64, across several age groups, was spectacular, involving many realms: the instant resusitation of a powerful-but-dormant musical form, radical haircuts, overall style, the wit and freshness of the movie, bubblegum cards (purchased in large quantities by youngsters under 10, an age group barely touched by "Sgt. Pepper"), the art of the album cover, inspiration for Bob Dylan, paving the way in the U.S. for the British Invasion, and the linking in many new ways of Britain and America.