Jenean McBrearty

Dickens and Veritas Noir

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ... etc. etc."

Charles Dickens certainly knew how to milk an idea. It's one of the reasons this first line from A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorites. The other reason is that the first twelve words aptly describe a paradoxical truth about WWII I first heard from my mother. She knew nothing of literary theory or the sociological explanations of post-war maladjustment we've come to know in everything from film noir to diagnoses of PTSD, but she did understand the contradictory nature of truth. Experiential knowledge, you might call it. She lived both the dream and the nightmare. As she once said to me, "I prayed he'd come back, and he did, without a scratch. Only he didn't come back to me."

Hasty marriages between strangers who might never see each other again were not unusual after December 7, 1941. They were affirmations of romantic desperation in the face of possible extinction of an individual's gene pool. Darwin would concur.

Biological urgency often undergirds excitement, and excitement breeds. It was after young lust waned that the mundane reality of survival set in and led to a numbing cultural malaise, which, paradoxically, spawned a new movement that both expressed and transformed that malaise into art.

Dickens' novel itself is essentially a study of contrasts; the city of London contrasted to Paris, Englishmen contrasted with Frenchmen, national civility contrasted with the national bloodletting of the French Revolution, for examples. In the aftermath of WWII, however, the French observed that American film and literature reflected other culture specific contrasts, the nobility and highly moral choices only available in the violent circumstances war with the complacency and moral mischief only available in the safety of peace. 

Thus, America produced paeans to its warriors in films like Battleground (Battle of Bastogne) and Sands of Iwo Jima (Marines raise the flag on Suribachi), portrayed the difficulties of social readjustment in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (physically and mentally wounded soldiers), as well as great noir thrillers such as The Third Man (skullduggery and betrayal of the Cold War). Malaise morphed into nihilism, and nihilism into a noir ethos that infected every facet of American life from the insurance industry (Double Indemnity) to roadside cafes (The Postman Always Rings Twice) to movie making itself (The Bad and the Beautiful). What happened to Europe in the wake of WWI happened to America in the wake of WWII; it was generally accepted that urban life was ugly as well as nasty, depraved, and cheap.

However, considering that America's cities were still intact while many in the world were blown to bits, and America's wartime death toll paled in comparison with the rest of the world, was this virulent aftermath noir-ism justified? Probably not. But Hollywood's movie money making machine has never let thoughtful reflection get in the way of success, and noir, in style and substance, has withstood the test of time genre-wise even without reference to war. It's a POV.

But, if noir's founding time frame, the war years 1941 to 1950, represented the "worst of times" for her, what of Mom's "best of times"? She was no naive teenager in 1941. She was twenty-one, and her Romeo was almost thirty and had a previous marriage on his resume when they met on that westward train. For her, finally leaving the constrictions of Omaha, Nebraska, and her German farming parents after growing up in the Great Depression, being young, pretty, and around hundreds of young handsome men in uniform was heaven. It was a late start, but she got her shot at being the princess even if only for a few days. Whether the price of that choo-choo fling-one of those hasty marriages and being pregnant alone-was worth it, she never said. Perhaps, she never weighed her life on a scale. Maybe she did her biological and patriotic duty and that was that.

I still have a photograph she took of her dressing table on which sat a framed 8x10 glossy of her with the words All My Love, Ginny written in lipstick on the mirror. I know she yearned for life to be romantic, nice, and always pretty. Yet, their relationship ended with screaming matches, infidelities and a trip to the hospital when she split his head with a mixing bowl. She grew up with brothers, so she was a scrapper. She was also a high school dropout, a manic-depressive, and a stressed-out single parent of two daughters. What was cause and what was effect, I'll never know, but she was the best of moms and the worst of moms.

An image of the editor's great-grandparents

My dark truth is that she was sort of like me, now that I'm old enough to reflect on the best and the worst of the 1960's. Only giving "it" up to a sailor was no longer considered patriotic. Peace was the watchword-or rather the constricting ethos of the times. Mom insisted I be virginal while she hid her liaison with her eighteen-year-old sailor boy. My peers insisted I give it up to longhaired college poets who preferred alternate consciousness and leftist politics. This war was generational and was neither romantic nor free-for-all fun. It was just confusing. To Mom, I was a dirty slut. To my friends, an up-tight WASC fresh out of a medieval convent called St. Joseph's Grammar School. Looking back, I was everybody's enemy because I thought both sides were full of another kind of 'it'.

No one had to explain noir to me. No one ever had to explain Dickens to me. The general consensus was, I was the best and the worst person who ever lived. The best, and worst part, of longevity is learning that it's the same for everybody.

Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and online journals. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Nonfiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story, Red's Not Your Color. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time ⸺when she's not watching classic movies and eating chocolate.