In 1941, Thornton Wilder visited a nation in crisis, witnessing a remarkable and strange resolve
The English enjoy telling the story of the postman in Coventry who on the Saturday morning following the raid was seen conscientiously examining one crater after another and leaving pieces of paper on which were written the words “Gone away.” The English enjoy their own amazement at the matter-of-fact way in which the nation behaved under its ordeals. During the month I spent there this fall, I was often asked with a touch of anxiety: “Do you suppose it’s our lack of imagination?” They take pleasure in describing the few additional measures that the enemy might have employed to ensure their collapse; yet their attitude towards this escape is not one of proud elation, nor is it one of religious awe, like that of Themistocles after Marathon (“It is not we who have done this thing”), nor is it one of grim resolution to retaliate; it can only be described as of an almost amused bewilderment. They cannot wait to ask questions of the newcomer who has arrived to ask questions of them. Strangers cross a room to ask of an American: “Is the destruction greater or less than you had imagined?” This is a difficult question to answer, partly because the visitor has passed through successive positions of relief and dismay, and partly because the English, proud of those scars, are disappointed if one answers less and uneasy if one answers more. When the American reports that he has visited some district that has been notably “knocked about,” they inquire: “Isn’t it like Pompeii?,” and the inquiry is put in that tone of voice which Latin grammars describe as “expecting the affirmative answer.” Remembering the resilience of the population about those damaged sites, one promptly answers No, and the English visibly store the answer away among the puzzling heterogeneous facts that they must think over. These last few months, universally known as “the lull,” have been the season to look back on the struggle: the nation has indeed been in extremity, and every citizen has been in danger of his life—for there are no shelters safe from the descent of a land-mine. An urgent compulsion has filled them all to analyze the state of mind that enabled the country to survive its hours of extremest danger so magnificently.
At first, it seemed as if there might be some truth in this troubled inquiry as to whether the English were wanting in imagination. It is difficult to convey the extent to which the discussion of these matters lacked rhetorical emphasis and conscious pathos. The English understatement of emotion has long been proverbial among themselves and among foreigners, but even they are astonished at the degree that obtains now and compare it with the relative expressiveness that was general during the previous war. “My elder son,” said a woman at luncheon, in the tone of voice she would employ to describe the transplantation of tulip bulbs in agarden, “was reported dead from Libya, but we have just received a letter from him. He is in a hospital in Italy where he has just undergone a tenth operation, and he writes that if they take any more of his uniform out of him, he will have enough to make a pair of trousers. And my second son, who lost a leg in Norway, is the happiest man in the world, for he has just been pronounced fit to resume his place as an air-pilot.” “The second evening after Clydebank’s Blitz,” said the Glasgow official who was showing me over the district, “I was driving over that hill and a warden stopped me by the road. It seems he had fifty mothers and their children up in that apple orchard. They’d been out in the open two days and a night. He asked me if I couldn’t bring back some food from the centre in the town, because it wasn’t right that the farmers near-by should supply everything. I noticed that his right arm was bound up in a dirty bandage and told him that it should be looked after, but he said that he could do that later. Seems that he had seen a parachute coming down and thinking that it was an enemy trooper had gone toward it; but it was a land-mine. I haven’t seen him since. Looked like a school-master to me.” The architects of Bristol had organized themselves into a fire-fighting squadron to preserve their historic monuments, particularly St. Mary Redcliffe, which Queen Elizabeth had called “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.” “There I was,” said one of them, “scrambling about all night on the leads of St. Mary Redcliffe, putting out incendiaries, and you could see to read a newspaper the whole night.” These things are recounted without even that conscious dryness of tone or reinforcement of the glance which are among the devices of emotional emphasis.
The assurance that none of the implications of these events was missing to the English through some supposed want of imagination was not long in arriving, however. Though they permitted themselves no generalized statements and no expressions of pride, dismay, or pain, the visitor became aware that each Englishman of the educated classes harbored his favorite story of some action or remark from the working-people, from charwomen, bus-conductors, or taxi-drivers. It seemed as though the gift for making elevated utterances or exhibiting lofty attitudes had descended upon the working population, and the rest of the nation was able to relieve its own charged but locked heart by availing itself of this homely eloquence, rendered utilizable because it came by way of that indirection which is dialect and humor. “We had all come up from a shelter during a day raid. Two old women from the East End were standing near me when another passed by with her soldier son. I heard the woman nearest to me say: ‘Look, she shouldn’t have brought her son here; those boys aren’t used to it like we are.’ ” “One morning,” said a writer, “as I was going out into a street of still-burning houses and tottering walls, I saw two typists on their way to work. They were picking their steps on the pavements which were inches deep in broken glass, and one of them called to the other, irritably: ‘Look out, dearie, don’t go so fast. You’ll turn your ankle, and where will you be then, I’d like to know! ’ “
There were two other safety-valves for restrained emotion—praise of the beauty of the countryside and praise of the airmen. It was universally agreed that the country had never been more beautiful than during that fateful autumn and spring, nor the sky over London more cerulean than when it contained the scarf-like clouds that are often the only thing visible in an aerial dog-fight. It was in regard to the airmen that I heard in conversation an expressive allusion to the tragic background of the war. On being informed that I was to visit one of the Bomber Commands, a woman who had worked among them said with a quick gesture of the hand: “Oh, those men, you know—they feel they are reserved for death.”
Economy of speech was to be expected from the airmen.The fighter pilots differ from the bombers; they are even younger; and though their work requires no less rigorous training and technical precision, it affords the explosive relief of encountering the enemy, individual to individual. The bombers, however, facing perhaps an even greater danger, can only approximately reckon the success of their efforts. They do not conceal the fact that they hate the work they do. When the uncertainties of weather or target location frustrate the raid towards which so exacting a strain of the will has been expended, they are, in the words of one of their superiors, “difficult to calm.” The fighters on their leaves of absence accord themselves the volatile recreation that one expects of virtuosi; the bombers are thoughtful and withdrawn. But all the airmen differ from the British public in one thing. The general population among its other reticences refrains from expressions of hatred towards the Germans. Voices are not raised when they refer to “Jerry” and “him.” The men of the Air Force freely characterize their opponents. Not once but many times I was told of occasions when the pilots having brought down an enemy plane were under the necessity of arresting the crew. They approached them with the deference they felt should be accorded to a worthy opponent and officer. The Germans submitted to this, but only long enough to permit them to come near enough to the Britons to spit in their faces. The hysterical fanaticism of the Germans is the last thing an Englishman could understand.
His guarded equanimity does not spring from a failure to understand the country’s extremity, nor is it a mere brave whistling in a dark corridor. It arises from a deep consternation, on the one hand, and from a sense of communal responsibility, on the other. The British had, indeed, at the moment of the fall of France gazed into the abyss and had seen the possibility of their own collapse. For a few weeks they had faced the possibility that their island—so long held to be of a self-evident perdurability, and loved in that literal and concrete way which only island-dwellers can know—might fall to an invader. That vision was rendered doubly petrifying by the consciousness that their own negligence and the misjudgment of those they had placed in authority had brought them to these straits. It is significant to me that only twice during my visit did I hear allusions of self-reproach, anger, and regret relating to those years of blindness before the war; they were neither condoned nor forgotten; they were merely passed over in silence. The hair of the English had not changed color in a single night, but from their minds had been swept away all preoccupation with the emotional or picturesque element of the war. Many were even impatient, though not cynical of its slogans. It was astonishing to hear even from those who had added the initial to the decoration of their houses, a whispered “V for Vulgarity,” and to hear, while a band was playing a famous popular song, the commentary, delivered with an amused wink: “There’ll always be a Carthage.”
The other spring for this understatement was each person’s sense of responsibility for the mental temper of his neighbor. At times I felt like some passerby who has strayed by accident upon a stage where a play is in progress. Each of the highly dramatic episodes of the action was clear to me, but seemed to be misunderstood by the performers. Suddenly, however, I realized that I was a late arrival; that earlier in the play there had been a scene exhibiting these characters in some situation of a gravity so profound that there was no need to allude to it afterward; that allusion could only be inadequate, as it could only be disruptive. Back had flowed the spirit of the daily life, and only with close attention could the newcomer surprise some exchange between them of glance or gesture that recalled the vows they had taken and the agony they had shared.
All are aware, however, that in another realm there had been brought to light some considerable evidence of a shortness in imagination. The preparations which the government had made for the relief of the poor during the raids had been extensive and for the most part effective; but when the emergency arrived there were not a few situations that exposed a bureaucracy that not even the obvious needs of suffering thousands could render prompt or flexible. Certain of these situations were not alleviated until a number of younger journalists and clergymen from parishes in the East End had made repeated journeys to Whitehall, clamoring for attention in a tangle of jealous interlocking departments and ill-defined authorities.
Two illustrations may suffice. A working-man would emerge from a shelter at dawn to discover that his house had been destroyed. A notice on the wall informed him that in such a case he should proceed to the Rest Centre. Thence he was directed to the Public Assistance Officer for “help-in-kind.” As a Rest Centre could not harbor the homeless for more than twenty-four hours, he had to go to the Engineer’s Department before he could receive an allocation for billeting, in order to procure a certificate that the smoking heap of brick-dust was uninhabitable. If anyone in his family were injured he had to get in touch with the Chief Regional Officer of the Ministry of Pensions “whose address may be obtained at any post office.” He might replace his lost food card through the National Registry Officer. In one borough it required a walk of five miles to obtain the immediate and essential needs. A social worker came upon a company of destitute people who had been living for days under the arch of a bridge and asked if there were any homeless there. All denied loudly that they were homeless. They preferred their outcast state to the officiousness and delays of organized relief.
The signal achievements of these months have been performed by the average men and women of England, once they were rallied by Mr. Churchill—the civilians who swarmed across the water to relieve Dunkirk, the firefighters, the merchant mariners, or the young in the services, as in the Royal Air Force. At last, moreover, the “little man” has met the privileged man on daily equal-to-equal footing, in the exercises of the Home Guard—now two million strong—and in thousands of Wardens’ centres. It is not that these encounters have exposed any notable incompetence in either class, but they have dispersed the cloud of ipso-facto superiority, which had been so intimidating to the average man even when it had not been asserted by the privileged. Side by side with every Englishman’s undoubted commitment of his will to the prosecution of the war, there is in many minds a smoldering resolution to remold the structure of society after the war.
To overemphasize a few such difficulties—common enough in other countries even when there is no confusion of crisis to complicate them—would be an injustice to the total magnificent achievement of civilian defense in Britain under the unheard-of conditions of the air raids. Yet to pass them over in silence would be to overlook an important new element in current attitudes. The principal thing in the mental temper of Britain is the unity and resolution exemplified in the self-imposed restraint and the co-operation of all citizens in the emergency. In a factory which produces certain delicate instruments for airplanes the workers had denied themselves three week-ends off in succession. Great was the anticipation for the recess finally accorded them. On the Friday before it they were called together at the noon hour and addressed by two air pilots each of whom had made over thirty flights into enemy territory.The airmen explained to them the urgency of the demand for the several hundred instruments that would be lost through the closing of the factory and asked them to remain at their tasks. The workers remained. On an historic·estate in Sussex, a lady from Mayfair had herself milked the cow, churned the butter, and, with the help of one friend, cooked the dinner for six.
The enemy had first shown what a total war can be—every citizen bent to an activity directed against every citizen in the enemy country. Britain is making it clear that what the Germans have effected, first with rhetorical oratory, and finally with threat and coercion, a democracy can achieve with composure and free will.
Originally published in the Autumn 1941 edition of The Yale Review, vol. 31.2.
Image: London during World War II, 1939-1945, courtesty of the National Archives, Washington (#195566).