“The world is at sea on a raft in a hurricane” 1940 and 2017

Illustration for Edna Ferber’s Essay, Cosmopolitan, October 1940.

As many of you know, for quite a while I’ve been reading magazines published in the 1930s and 1940s; I’ve been interested in the values that women’s magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, imparted to their women readers. In those days, magazines were filled with articles about current events as well as fiction by some of the nation’s best authors.

In October 1940, just weeks before Franklin D. Roosevelt would defeat Wendell Wilkie and become the only three-term president, Americans agonized over whether to enter World War II.  Germany had taken over France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. October 31st was the deadline for the Jews in Warsaw to move into the Warsaw Ghetto. It was also the day when the Battle of Britain ended between the RAF and the Luftwaffe with a British victory. In America, that September, all men between 21 and 45 were required to register for the draft. Still, children were free to celebrate Halloween with much more enthusiasm than those experiencing real horror in Europe. Their costumes were inspired by movies such as “Snow White” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Popular songs appropriate to the scary holiday included  “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” and “The Ghost of Smokey Joe,” both released in 1939.

Against this sobering background, Edna Ferber (1885-1968), the Pulitzer Prize- winning novelist, short story writer and playwright— who, even today, has 89 books on Goodreads—published an essay in the Oct 1940 Cosmopolitan called “Something to Believe In.” That something was American freedom. It’s hard not to imagine whether she couldn’t have written a similar piece today (though it would not have appeared in Cosmopolitan ).

“The world is at sea on a raft in a hurricane,” Ferber wrote. Chaos reigns. And “the everyday behavior of everyday life doesn’t fit this new precarious situation. One thing we’re agreed on. Anybody’s opinion is as good as anybody’s opinion. We can all speak out.” In fact, she continues, Americans “are the only people in the world who can freely speak our minds and our hearts” everywhere.  “It is a thing we’ve always taken for granted.  Now, suddenly, it takes our breath away.” Ferber was worried: “We are not doing enough to preserve America’s vitality. Every American has the right and the voting power to put at the head of this government, as a paid and functioning servant, the man [not man or woman, I note] to be known as President,” yet not enough people vote.  Not enough people care enough to make sure that the people that we place in office are “people of known integrity and ability.” And there is far too much cynicism and disillusionment. Sound familiar?

“Liberty is more perishable than life, more transitory and evasive than happiness. It has to be guarded, defended, fought for over and over again.” The United States is “in danger from subversive forces without and within the continent.” Too often, Ferber opines in 1940, “we have worshipped material success;” we need to be prepared for some sacrifice and self-denial. For out of fear may spring “the flower of heroism.” We all need to “work for the common good, change from the lazy, sneering, contemptuous, soft and careless attitude that has enslaved us for a quarter of a century.” Finally, Edna Ferber warns us—then and now: “If we believe that what we have is desirable enough to keep we should keep it. If we’re licked before we start, we deserve to lose it.”

Over this past weekend, I heard that more than 92 million people who could have, neglected to vote in the 2016 presidential election. I had not realized the number was so huge. One amusing website noted last January that if “Did Not Vote” had been a candidate in the U.S. presidential election, it would have won by a landslide. That’s one reason why—as we perch on the brink of at least one possible war which could be far more harrowing than the last world war — Edna Ferber has some thoughts that may be useful for us today.

It is fascinating that so much emphasis was placed on cultivating character in pre-1950 popular women’s magazines aimed at housewives and single young working girls. They are dense with serious content. They are not only about how to dress, how to lose weight, how to decorate, and how to please a man. In fact, one article emphasizes that “people about to be married need training in character much more than they need instruction in sex.” [“Religion in the Home” by William Lyon Phelps, Good Housekeeping, June 1938.]  There are many, many substantive magazines now, though most of these are not sold in supermarkets. [In my local supermarket, Cosmo is so racy it has a shield over the cover.]  And there are hundreds of ways to learn from thoughtful, inspiring online publications, blogs and websites etc.  But I fear that most of the people who did not vote in 2016 probably do not see them.

For much more about what shaped women’s thoughts in the 1930s and 1940s see other posts, subscribe to the blog, and take a look at Such Mad Fun (2016).