All Quiet Along the Huron

(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, November 1940)

By the diagnosis of a gentleman in Michigan, the Easy Chair needs medical attention. Hysteria. The evidence is that, reaching Santa Fe just when the House of Brabant saved itself by enslaving its people, just when the Nazi tanks and bombers began the attack that was to enslave France, the Easy Chair wrote that these things were a danger to America, that they threatened the gentleman’s home town. That made the gentleman in Michigan mad and, with a number of others, he said so. He called the Easy Chair an agent of the hysterical East. He said that the Easy  Chair ought to get away from the East oftener and seek the quiet of the West.

He liked that phrase, “The quiet of the West,” for he repeated it. The West, understand, was quiet in that the death of Europe did not disturb it. It saw no portents; it wasn’t scared. Maybe the  Nazis were making a new earth under a  new heaven, but let’s take that in our  stride — it was only Europe after all, and  the Western pulse was calm. The world we grew up to know and count on had  been blown to hell by Panzer divisions, and the world we hoped our children might inherit had become a broken and fantastic dream but water was flowing down the Huron in the old untroubled way. There was a hand on our throat, but no matter, why make a noise about it? The future of America had become very much what the future of a house under construction becomes when a flood sweeps the foundation away, but the West was quiet. The gentleman from  Michigan enjoyed that quiet and he resented a voice from the hysterical East shouting that the dam was out and the waters on their way down the valley.

I have a certain snobbery. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains, and so I have always objected to the carelessness of  Middle Westerners who call their section the West. And you’re wrong, brother, it wasn’t the West that was quiet when Europe died. I found the West, where the conditions of life, so much harder than those you’re used to in Michigan, make people realistic – I found the West just as disturbed as I was by those trivial events overseas, just as certain that America was in ghastly danger. The West wasn’t quiet. It was the Middle West that was quiet – people like you in places like Michigan. So, since we can all be diagnosticians, I’m going to explain your disease.

I’m pretty scared, brother, but you’re scared far worse. Do you know that hysteria is the mind’s retreat from what it dares not face? A crisis can get through your instinctive defenses and make you, for a moment, see things plain. During those days when the French army was being pushed always farther back, while France was opening along the seams, you hung over the radio, desperate for each new bulletin.  You kept asking yourself and everyone would listen, When will Weygand counter-attack?  You clung to your friends and the clerk in the cigar store and strangers on the street, trying to understand what was going on, trying to master your alarm, trying to find some intelligent defense against it.  You read Dorothy Thompson and Walter Lippmann and other people who were telling you that the catastrophe of France was an American catastrophe too. You understood that, you agreed with them, you kept asking Why doesn’t someone do something? Maybe you sent some wires to your good, gray Senator Vandenberg telling him he was blind and obsolete. There was a healthy quiver of fear in your stomach, quiver enough to make you amenable to thought and capable of action but not enough to stampede you. This was while the crisis wa,s at its height, while every headline and every broadcast beat its urgency over your head, while the tension of life in a crumbling world was at its tightest stretch.

Then the tension got too great and snapped; France fell, the headlines had so long overloaded the sensory nerves that no further sensation could get through; there came a lull which was just exhausted emotions, the crisis — as we playfully put it — was over. At once you went into what is correctly diagnosed as traumatic shock. Dorothy Thompson and Walter Lippmann went on pointing the moral of what had happened, but suddenly you couldn’t take it. Instead of feverishly absorbing every word they wrote, you found yourself unable to absorb or even read them any more. You  began to feel that they were dangers to America, which means that you felt  them as dangerous to you. Probably you wrote to them saying they were suffering from hysteria: that’s what you  wrote to me when I remarked that you were in danger. Panic had laid hold  of you.  Panic assured you that these events in Europe could not possibly affect you. Panic told you that everything would be all right if only people would shut up. Panic told you that quiet was best. It was panic that. made  you quiet, that made the Middle West quiet, hysterical panic. Hysteria, remember, is the mind’s retreat from what it dares not face. That’s what happened to you, that’s why your home town is serene. Of course you’re quiet; anyone is quiet who is scared stiff. There is such a thing as coma.

You’ll come out of that quiet every time events go into the crescendo of another crisis. You’ll hang over the radio again, and read Walter Lippmann like a starving man seeking bread.  Each time, however, you’ll come out of it not quite so far; you’ll scurry back faster into the amniotic waters; you’ll demand quiet more desperately and find it more easily.  You’ll get madder at anyone who seems  likely to disturb you. You’ll yell at them always more loudly: Oh, for God’s sake leave me alone, peace at any price, we’ve got to live in the same world with Hitler, haven’t we? it’s not our war, America  has its own problems to solve, and shut up, shut up, shut up, I’ve got to have my sleep.

Do you know that you’re a set-up,  brother? They count on you, overseas.  You’re in all the books. You know that  phrase, the war of nerves, you use it glibly. It’s aimed at you. They know about your nerves and how to work on  them, how to make you panicky, how to  induce this quiet in the Middle West. They’ve said they needn’t bother to spend money or risk lives invading  America, for America is a soft, timorous, peace-loving, hysterical nation that can be handled ever so easily, America, they say, will be a pushover. They’re talking about you, and your quiet town.

Catatonia. A forced flight, into sleep because the waking world is too terrible to be faced. You need the treatment given people who have taken an overdose of some hypnotic. We must keep you walking the floor no matter how drowsy you may be, feed you all the black coffee you can take, subject you to endlessly repeated stimuli, stimuli so simple that the numbed mind cannot misinterpret them, repeated so frequently that it gets not time to harden its defense.

Have you got a car?  Of course you have, you live in Michigan. Probably it’s a Buick, for your printed letterhead shows that you are comfortably placed, and Flint, where Buicks are made, is just an hour’s drive east of your quiet town. Do you count on turning it in next year, on a new one? Maybe you won’t. When the time comes to turn it in you may oddly find yourself unable to afford a new car. There will have been a queer but very quiet erosion; it will have taken part of your bank account away. They are building other machines besides automobiles in Flint; whether asleep or awake you’ll be paying for them. That is one thing that Mr. Lippmann has been talking about, the new car you won’t be able to afford.

Have you got a house? Of course you have. You belong to the well-upholstered middle class; you’ve done well for yourself even during these past ten years when it hasn’t been so easy to do well for oneself as it used to be. It’s a fine house too, a new one, no doubt a better one than you could have managed if it hadn’t been for the twenty-year amortization plan that the FHA and the banks worked out. You’re proud of that house, you love it profoundly, it symbolizes the deepest part of you and your expectation of America. Maybe you aren’t going to pay off that mortgage. Maybe you’re going to lose that house. That too is what Miss Thompson and Mr. Lippmann are talking about, the collapse in America of your house and the organization that enabled you to build it, under the weight of the events abroad that you don’t want to hear about. You like a bit of butter on your bread, just like Christopher Robin’s king, and that house is a bit of butter. Some of your butter is going to be turned into guns no matter what happens; American guns if you and your quiet towns get the point in time, or German guns if you don’t — and if German guns, why, then, all your butter. While you sleep quietly, shingle by shingle that house of yours is blowing down the wind. Better not sleep too long.

Have you got children? It was the  children I was talking about. Your dreams for them are the best of you. All these years you have hoped to start them off on their own a little more favorably  than you started. You’ve wanted them to have sound bodies, good health, skills and training, poised and disciplined  minds. You’ve wanted to fit them to grapple with the unknowable future.  Millions of fathers have shared that desire; it is the health and the promise of  our middle class; the trite phrase for it is “the American dream.”  And while everything stays quiet in your home  town, bit by bit that expectation is being vetoed. A bomb falling on Dover has  hit your children’s school. The War  Department must order some more  planes, and so your daughter won’t be  going to that summer camp you had in  mind. The Nazis seize Rumania, and  so you won’t be able to send your son to  a professional school; maybe even college will prove to be quite out of the question. You’ve got to accept a lesser expectation  for them, in detail, in the whole, and for  their children too. You won’t like that. They won’t like it either.

During these past years that dream of yours has sometimes been displaced by a  nightmare. You have had brief, paralyzing phantasies of your son unable to  find work during the years of his vigor — your son, impotently idle — on Relief.  They have been a sharp agony, and so how do you like the picture of your son sucked into the aimless rioting of the dispossessed as jobs get fewer, as business  and society progressively break down, as the framework of American life caves in?   Or, alternatively, how do you like the picture of him with a bland smile on a  vacant face, goose-stepping in one of the youth-pulverizing battalions that the Nazis know how to organize, all the personality and individuality you’ve labored  to give him systematically destroyed?   I’m not talking about some foreigners pictured in Life; I’m talking about your son in the quiet Middle West.

Your house is on fire and your children will burn. Your country will burn –  that pleasant town in Michigan, an hour west of Flint.  Life shows you some Dorniers and Messerschmitts flying across  the English Channel. What you’re too scared to see is that they’re flying across  Lake Huron too. You boast of the quiet there in Michigan. But, you see,  that’s yesterday. Placid in yesterday, you’ve watched Europe go down; for over a year you’ve seen tanks and planes blasting their way across it. Because  they haven’t blasted their way across America you think they haven’t moved across it; but they have. The world has changed forever; America’s place in it  has changed; with every beat of your  pulse America is becoming something different — pounded into a different shape by the detonations which you think of as merely sound-effects in a newsreel. It really is a pleasant town — I know for I drove through it a month or so before you wrote to me — but it won’t be pleasant very long now unless you wake up.  Even if you do wake up it will never again be the town you’ve lived in up to now — but you can keep it a good town.

If you wake up. This angry protest of yours comes out of sleep; it is a sleeper’s defense against realities that would shatter his dream. When the world is dangerous sleep is so much better than waking, dream is so much easier than courage. But sleep and dreaming are death just now, and that is why you must be waked and kept awake no matter how angrily you may resent the voices that get through to you. I didn’t know that I was writing to you personally when I sent that letter from Santa Fe, but it turns out that I was — to you. About your house, your car, your school system, your children — about the United States and you and your home town. We have still got a chance to control events, to bring America and your son through the storm in such a way that the promise of both of them can still be fulfilled.  Oh, not at all in the way you and I hoped for, perhaps not in any way that we can understand just now, but certainly in some  way that will preserve the worth and use the talents of both, some way that will  save their freedom. Our chance to do it is still a good chance, the odds are still in  our favor — if we stand on our feet and  face things, if we keep our nerve, if you  come out of the coma that is pure panic.

You know the Burma Shave signs.  Our highways ought to be lined with similar sequences that you would have to read, sequences of simple, plain, bitter truths. Still shorter and plainer ones  ought to be set up at every stop light, and  over the entrance to your office building, and on the counter where you buy tobacco. Little slogans which would pound the nerve that winced when you read my piece. Skywriters ought to smear them in mile-long letters above your golf course. Every radio program ought to plug them at the beginning and at the end and half-way through. They ought to leap out at you from billboards;  sound trucks should blare them all evening long in the street before your fine new house. Because, you see, this desperate drowsiness resists them with the full strength of your panic. If that panic  wins we lose — you lose.

What ought they to say? Simple, elementary, readily understandable things.  The things that you dread most and so deny most vehemently. Just that the world is on fire. That America will be  burned up unless you come awake and do something. That time is passing.  That the quiet of your home town, which you boast about, is the quiet of a slumber that is settling toward the quiet of death.