Reading through “Time of our Lives”

A couple of weeks ago I finished the essay, “Time of our Lives,” by Mark Harris. The online version is titled, “A Cautionary Tale for the New Roaring Twenties,” probably because that title seemed more clickable. It’s rare that an essay can entertain me in the way that this one does, with sentences that take you much further than you could have expected, with a twist, a play or words, or sarcasm that actually works. The essay is about the poem, “The Wild Party,” written by Joseph Moncure March. The general sense of the poem appears (especially in hindsight) to expose the rotten core of a culture that seemed to only live for pleasure written at the end of the 20s just before the inevitable, harrowing morning after. Included with the essay online is a reading of the poem. At over an hour, I’m ashamed but not surprised that I tapped out a quarter of the way in. But not before the poem, like the essay, managed to make me smile. As an appreciation, some quotes from the essay below.

“There are few things more glamorous than the belief that we are living through the end of an era — and there are even fewer times in recent history when we haven’t believed it.”

“The Wild Party,” Joseph Moncure March’s book-length 1928 narrative poem about the end of an era — the end of a long, louche, bacchanalian night of bodies twining together in lust and in violence; and the end of a life — is drama in it’s coolest, coldest form.”

“In just one eight-word run:

Eyes flashed,
Glistened:
Everyone talked:
Few listened.
Crash!

March seems to summarize with uncanny precision the entire year that followed his poem’s publication.”

“‘Kindred’ may have been wishful thinking; March’s voice in ‘The Wild Party’ is that of a well-bred young man with a reporter’s eye who stood slightly off to one side with sardonic sang-froid, filing away all the excess he saw for later use.”

“March and his contemporaries were aware of the dazzling-party-being-upended-by-brutal-reality trope as narrative — the narrative of their parents and grandparents, who still mourned the demise of the Bell Époque, the age of sophisticated, elegant European culture spreading its bejeweled wings across the globe before the war ruined everything.”

“Willed optimism can be a powerful thing; the song ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ made its debut one month after the crash of ’29.”

“It would be a mistake to sentimentalize the Roaring Twenties as a time when all classes, ages, and races could converge and mingle if the party was right; it was more a moment when white cultural tourism became easier and more available than it had been.”

“As vivid and evocative as March’s language is, he is less interested in animating his characters than in showing them to us under glass. ‘The Wild Party’ is an autopsy performed under a flickering light by a wisecracking coroner. Perhaps its characters can’t be embodied, only witnessed.”

“As I write this, things are getting worse, or is it better, or is it just different, in New York and across the country. With every new whim of the .001 percent (Tired of the protocols? Consider flying into space on your own rocket ship!) the nightmarish economic inequities of our age are characterized anew with a misuse of the phrase ‘late capitalism,’ as if capitalism were reaching it’s long-scheduled death throws right on time and would then politely disappear.”

“It also doesn’t matter what March knew. His poem knew. And it still reads as a dangerous time-capsule bulletin — something that emerged from a melting ice cap yesterday, or perhaps tomorrow, and bobbed into the sea, waiting to see if, once its bleak tidings reach our shores, we will pay attention.”

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