All fiction is historical fiction. That’s hardly a piercing insight — even if all topical references are scrubbed out of a story, the author’s assumptions and preoccupations will fix its place in history. What IS startling, though, is how quickly that history becomes ancient history.
While I continue the search for full-time employment, I’ve signed on as a substitute teacher in several school districts. The other day I filled in for the teacher of a reading comprehension class. The middle schoolers had been going over Rod Serling’s teleplay for “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” one of the best-known episodes of The Twilight Zone, I warned the kids that as an artifact from pre-CGI 1960, the show’s visuals effects would look cut-rate and frequently corny — once again I marvel at how often the show reused sets and props from Forbidden Planet — but they should try to stay focused on Serling’s writing. Then I filled them in on a bit of Serling’s background as one of the first great talents of the television era, and how after years of fighting with timid programmers and intrusive advertisers, he hit on the idea of using a fantasy and science fiction-oriented series to comment with the social and political issues of the day. In an interview he called himself “a tired idealist,” but the best episodes of The Twilight Zone are anything but tired.
Then I tried to give them some more context, and promptly fell into a black hole of memory. The students got a few quick laughs at the sight of cars with running boards, but when I tried to convey the idea of living in an era when mass media consisted solely of newspapers, radio, snail mail, and television — no Internet, no smartphones, no texting — they were simply puzzled. (One of the main character is a ham radio operator — try explaining that one in millennial-friendly terms.) I asked them if they could relate the story to what was going on in current America. Some of them knew a bit about the Cold War and the civil rights movement, both major elements in the story’s background, but only one had heard of Joe McCarthy and the paranoid political climate he exploited. When I talked about 9/11, I ran into the realization that it, too, was history — they hadn’t even been born.They did smile knowingly, however, when I recalled that a great many people responded to 9/11 by becoming suspicious of all Muslims.
This isn’t going to be another complaint about how Those Damned Kids Aren’t Learnin’ Anything. I threw a lot at them in a small period of time, and a gratifyingly large number of the students tried to engage the subject. I learned a couple of things, too. One, tempus fugits a lot faster than you realize. Two, Serling’s closing message has a lot in common with Edward R. Murrow’s sign-off remark in his commentary on McCarthyism.