During National Poetry Month (April), I thought it would be interesting to quote one of the poems published in the same issue of The Atlantic Monthly as the incredible essay, “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush.
“As We May Think” was required reading when I was in grad school, and it still it. This is a work that was truly seminal in shaping the origins of the Internet, hypertext, the Web, more. Provocative, inspirational, decades before its time. It’s online, easy to find, and it’s even open and free to the world. When I went looking for poems from the issue, though, that was not easy to find, much less free. I ended up having to request the print copy. Print. Really? You must be kidding me, but no, it’s true. It took me a month to believe I wasn’t going to find it online, and another few weeks for me to place the request for the print and find time to actually look at it.
You know what happens with print? You go looking for one thing, and find something else. You turn a page, and a picture catches your eye. You start to skim one article, but a beautiful word or phrase on the facing page distracts you. Before you know it, you are turning pages whether or not they have anything to do with your original question.
Let me tell you something about the issue of The Atlantic for July 1945. It was published less than a year after D-Day. It was published only a few months after the official end to the war. It was published when people first began to see, to believe, that World War II really was going to end, and stay done. It was the beginning of moving through the shock and trauma of the war, beginning to tell stories that couldn’t be born, that no one wants to remember.
When I first read “As We May Think” it seemed all shiny and glossy, this vision of what might someday become computers, personal assistants, ready flexible access to information. The dream that was so much bigger than people realized at the time, bigger than I realized when I read it in grad school. I had no idea that this was one essay of a larger series that The Atlantic was publishing on science and the war, no real idea of the world in which it was written. Sure, we studied WWII in school, read about the concentration camps, the war bonds, the atom bomb, the refugees, the destruction of historical treasures across Europe, the bombing of London, the evacuations, the debates in America about whether or not to enter the war, the American resistors who joined the war efforts in Europe early and were shunned as unpatriotic for the rest of their lives.
It never really came alive for me, though, in the way that it did when my computers broke this week and I went through the journal issue that contained Vannevar Bush’s essay. Some of what I found there:
– “paper bombs” as tools to influence thought
– Ad: advertisements on new technologies created for the war that had drastic impacts on food and home lives of civilians (from ice cream to oranges to vitamins)
– serious examinations of media reporters, “their reliability, their prejudices, and their mistakes”
– the role of propaganda on both sides of the conflict as obvious and visible even at the time
– first person reports of Buchenwald, shocking ghastly stories neglected from modern reports of the camps
– bitter heart-wrenching poems of soldiers from the fronts
– sweet stories of life back home, still edged with fatigue and loss and an undertone of the global anxieties, and stories of life with what we now call PTSD or depression or anxiety or others
– “Should Jews Return to Germany?”
– Ad: the misunderstood science that led to putting iodine in gasoline
– “Prithee, Little Book, Who Made Thee?”
– Ad: “Coal? Yes, indeed, it’s a big item in the drugstore!”
– Ad: “For the first time in history, a world without poverty and without war is technically possible. Whether we achieve it depends on how well we understand the ‘Economies Of Peace’.”
– book reviews of and advertisements for works by Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Mann, John Crowe Ransom, W. H. Auden, and other familiar names.
Somehow, “As We May Think” takes on a different flavor in the context of essays, and poems like this snippet from Sasserath, which resonate so very differently now than when they were written, that echo with limits and struggles that repeat now in some places and yet have become fictions in others.
“We who must live on substitutes for life,
The powdered egg, the dehydrated spud, …
Or learn the art of love with plastic limbs …”
“On Anodynes, by Simpson Sasserath, RT2/c
Reading and seeing “As We May Think” in the context of the series of which it was a part, similarly lends a depth that makes it seem even more extraordinary. The series was called, “A Scientist Looks at Tomorrow,” beginning in 1945 ad stretching to at least 1947. It included titles such as these:
– The Social Animal / Caryl P. Haskins
– Stars, Proteins, and Nations / Philippe Le Corbeiller
– A Design for Fighting / Harlow Shapley
– Penicillin, Plasma Fractionation, and the Physician / Dr. John F. Fulton
– A Physicist Returns from the War / I. I. Rabi
– Psychiatry and the Way / Big. Gen. William G. Menninger
– DDT and the Balance of Nature / V. B. Wigglesworth
I’m now curious to find them all, as a fascinating window into what was considered the cutting edge of emerging technologies in the mid-1940s. But the few sentences that resonated with me most closely came from a few months after the Bush essay, towards the end of the year, in an essay called, “The Return to Love,” by Rollo Walter Brown.
We can take our choice. If we do not believe that the awakening, the generosity, the loyalty, the warmth, expressed in love can transform the world into something more livable than what we now have, then we can take the alternative and believe that husbands and wives who cannot endure each other, neighbors who cannot endure each other, races who cannot endure each other, people who scoff at anyone who would make an improvement, can somehow, added together, constitute one world living in amity. We can wait among our raucous hatreds until somebody somewhere decides to enforce his special hatred with some super-super atomic bomb. That is something definite and “realistic.” But might we not have a more interesting world if we tried love?