Age and ego conspire on an 86th birthday to see my life as a metaphor for America over the past century.
In 1921, “The Americanization of Edward Bok” appeared. Bok was, as I am, the child of immigrants who became, as I would, editor of a large magazine and took part, as I did, in public life. His book won a Pulitzer Prize and is still read, an artifact of those Horatio Alger days when a poor kid could pursue material success without introspection or doubt about its desirability above all else.
My experiences, much more modest, reflect how such immigrant striving was part of what Henry Luce called the American century of wealth and power, which devolved into moral and social complexity and, eventually, the divisions and doubts of this new one.
Back then, our parents escaped a nightmare, and we inherited a dream. Hungry ghetto kids before us showed the way. Herman Mankiewicz, who would later write "Citizen Kane," had sent a telegram to Ben Hecht from Hollywood: "Millions are to be grabbed out here, and the only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."
And oh how they grabbed! Movies had started to talk soon after I did, and the children of immigrants gave them words. They showed us the way to earn a living with our brains, not with their backs as our parents did.
We all wanted to be writers. Between the 1920s Lost Generation and the Silent Generation of the 1950s, we were on the rim of the Melting Pot and, if we tried hard enough, could hoist ourselves over and splash around in the splendor.
Woody Allen mocked our ambition in “Zelig,” who wills himself into becoming like the people he sees in newsreels. In pseudo-documentary style, Irving Howe, a scholar of the immigrant experience, explains the fictional chameleon: “He wanted to assimilate like crazy.”
So did we all. High-school classmates Paddy Chayevsky, James Baldwin, Neil Simon, Bruce Jay Friedman and Richard Avedon went on to make art out of the world we inhabited and the shinier one we wanted to enter.
We fought in a war and barriers came down--ethnic, racial, gender--and some of us played a small part in that, never doubting that the world would keep getting better. My working life brought encounters with iconic figures--John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote--and their early deaths inevitably evoked sadness about how making good in America was infinitely more complicated than Edward Bok ever dreamed.
Now all that experience has to confront a national mood that has turned sour after a brief flicker of hope last year that is being overwhelmed by bitterness, cynicism about community and a distrust that is rampant.
If age teaches anything, it is that in time everything passes. If last year's hope has faded, this year's despair will, too. For better or worse, we never stop reinventing ourselves
As JFK said, "Life is unfair," but Americans are very good at making the most of it.
Bring out the cake and candles.