How distant is the past?

Caption reads: "Cardinal McGuigan's interest in the youth is extreme."

A sign of historical distance: caption reads “Cardinal McGuigan’s interest in the youth is extreme.”

Well, I finished Chapter 1–the biographical chapter! Huzzah! It feels good to have a complete chapter under my belt, and I quite enjoyed writing it. It is such a colorful and unlikely story, set in Austria/Czechoslovakia/Germany between 1903-1928, in Toronto 1928-1948, and various parts of the US (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Mobile, and Tucson) 1948-2002. Magda Arnold died at nearly 99 years old, so her life covers just such a wide range of time periods and cultural settings that I’ve found myself struggling with how to conceptualize them.

I think I’m really wrestling with a bigger issue–how far away is the past? In the case of Arnold my sense of this is widely variable. Sometimes her life seems quite recent and modern and sometimes it’s unspeakably ancient–it belongs to that part of life where distance is made obvious by a lack of color. My inconsistent sense of historical distance was brought home to me this Christmas when my grandfather was telling stories about, among other things, his memories of WWII. When he recounts these stories (for example, the attack on Pearl Harbor being announced at a concert where he was singing with his college’s men’s quartet, and then getting in trouble with the very alert Coast Guard when he and his buddies picked that evening to go digging for clams on the beach) they feel fresh, and relatively recent. But when I am reading Arnold and Gasson’s correspondence (typed on a typewriter and accompanied by 1940s-50s stamps and postmarks), it feels like from another reality altogether–even though most of the letters are nearly a decade later than Grampa’s story. I have to remind myself–oh yeah, the 1950s, that’s when my Grampa was starting his career as a doctor, just a couple years after Arnold was herself interning in hospitals and working for the Canadian Veteran’s Hospitals. This 1950s science is not as distant as it feels. It’s even stranger when things overlap both geographically and temporally.

For example, I felt my worlds collide recently when I read a letter from John Gasson in which he tells Magda about his visit to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington and his brief vacation at the Gonzaga ‘Villa’ at Hayden Lake in Idaho. My branch of the Rodkey clan hails from just this part of Eastern Washington, and I couldn’t help but think how near Gasson was to my extended family. My great grandparents were there, just about 15 miles away on the family farm (where they were eking out a living raising cattle, selling eggs, and logging pine trees), on those hot days of July of 1955 as Gasson enjoyed the “just right” water of the Hayden Lake and got sunburned. My father was born just the next year, and grew up water skiing on Hayden Lake.

Of course, my own relationship to time is what makes a great difference in my perception for how far away history is. My relationships with people older than I anchors my sense of the past. Both my grandfathers were serving in the Korean War in the early 50s, when Arnold was teaching at Barat College of the Sacred Heart and working out how her faith and scholarship went together. My parents were going to college in 1975, when Arnold retired (had they only been Catholic & gone to Spring Hill in Moblie, AL, instead of an evangelical school in Portland OR, they could have been students in one of Arnold and Gasson’s classes–now there is a strange thought!). My younger sister was born (and I was two) the year Arnold published her last book, Memory and the Brain. I was alive but just a kid when Arnold was recording the memories of her life that I’m reading now. And I was a junior in college, taking psychology courses but with little notion of the history of the field, in 2002, the year Arnold died. Strange.

I keep asking myself “How far away is this, really?” as I consider the various parts of Magda’s life. It’s not an idle question, either. I need to know so I know if my own common sense interpretation as a 32 year old American woman (whose major historic life events have the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Oklahoma City Bombing, and 9-11 and its aftermath) will do or if I need to work to reinhabit Arnold’s perspective. For example, when I read historical correspondence I sometimes find it tricky to guess at the formality or familiarity of author and recipient, since my entire professional life I’ve sent emails. Some things, like travel itineraries or requests for reprints have easy email correlates, but some aspects of written letters seem to have been entirely lost in the move to digital.

The fact is, as close in the recent past this history is, so much as changed. Some things really are foreign to me. I don’t use a typewritter, for instance, so I don’t readily know whether certain typos in Gasson’s letters are his playful personality coming through or simply products of the unforgiving nature of the typewriter. But even more importantly, I don’t know the pre-Vatican II Catholic world that Arnold belonged to. My maternal grandfather grew up being beaten up by the Catholic kids at school because he was a Protestant–but in the world I inhabit Protestants and Catholics are close allies in a mostly secular society. The image at the top of this post is another example of how much has changed. It comes froCardinalMGm a book I stumbled upon about Cardinal James McGuigan, who was Archbishop of Toronto 1934-1971 and was made a cardinal in 1946. The book is a celebration of McGuigan’s installation and documents the pomp and circumstance of various events like the photo at right, from a Marian Congress in Ottawa. The book was published in 1948, the same year that Arnold converted, and to me it speaks of a completely lost Catholic world. Where you could have the streets of Ottawa lined with faithful Catholics,* where “His Eminence” could glory in the ring and other ornate vestments of office, where, perhaps most of all, you could publish a book with an image of the archbishop with his arm around a young boy and the unselfconcious declaration that the Cardinal’s “interest in the youth is extreme.”**

Somehow I have to bridge that distance, to reenter that world. I need to see the Catholicism as Arnold saw it, pre-Vatican II changes, before priest sex abuse scandals, while there was still a Catholic ghetto that many people lived their whole lives in, and from which many Catholic intellectuals (including Arnold) were struggling to break free. That’s what research is for, of course, and for the next little bit I’m going to be immersing myself in books and articles which tell me about this lost world. But it’s still a challenge, and I never feel like I’ve quite arrived.


*There is also mention in the book of a reception following his installation in the Maple Leaf Gardens in which 17,000 Torontonians of “different faiths crowded the stadium to the doors to do him honor.” Good luck trying that today!

**Don’t get me wrong, I am not implying anything about McGuigan–he seems to have been a great guy. At the time of his installation he was the youngest archbishop in the church (age 35) and he worked to decrease diocesan debt, and really did seem concerned to make the church youth-friendly.

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One thought on “How distant is the past?

  1. Jeanne says:

    Fascinating, Elissa. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as you research and write your paper. Hearing the questions that arise in your mind as you process the material, helps us to better think through the topics you write about.

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