Tuesday, January 07, 2020

'Dear Readers, a Very Happy New Year to You'

A time-honored journalistic ritual is the New Year’s column published early in January. It’s a retrospective look at the triumphs of the preceding twelve months and a preview of upcoming utopian delights. No one believes a word of it, most of all the columnist, but imagine our disappointment if he didn’t do his job. In January 1934, the duty fell to Evelyn Waugh in Harper’s Bazaar. After dismissing the empty charade of making New Year’s resolutions, Waugh writes:

“[I]t is more natural, perhaps, to look back on the old year, and most of us should be able to do this with some satisfaction. Let us disregard private worries. Everything may have gone wrong with us in heart, pocket and liver; we may, in private life, be obsessed by psychological disorders or a taste for theological controversy; our wives may be unfaithful or our husbands homicidal, our children extravagant and our favourite hunter gone in the wind; all these things may occupy us for six days out of seven, but in our capacity as readers of Harper’s Bazaar we become impersonal and are interested only in the decorative side of life—in what is new and gay.”     

Waugh shifts between the personal and national. He had spent the first four months of 1933 in South America. On his return to England he detects “a vastly more agreeable spirit.” He observes that “everyone seemed younger and more frivolous; there had been a stimulating reshuffle of wives, friends and husbands.” Waugh is not taking his job seriously, thank God, though he leaves out a few things about 1933 that may, in retrospect, with benefit of hindsight, loom significantly larger to us. Hitler came to power in January and construction of Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, was completed in March. By June, Stalin’s Holodomor famine-genocide in Ukraine was claiming 30,000 deaths from starvation each day. The unemployment rate in the U.S. peaked at 25.2 percent. Evidence of sanity appeared late in the year when Prohibition was repealed and a U.S. federal judge ruled that Ulysses was not obscene. Waugh writes:

“It is less cheerful to look back on the past year in search of any interesting achievement in painting or writing. . . . Except for Mr Anthony Powell, whose From a View to Death delighted me, I cannot name any novelist who seems really worth watching.”

Waugh saw King Kong, which he describes as the “most ambitious film, technically, of the year,” but dismisses as “contemptible as a dramatic work.” Professionally, in his own life, Waugh was just warming up. By January 1934 he had published three novels and was about to publish another, A Handful of Dust. He had published two excellent travel books, Labels: A Mediterranean Journal and Remote People, and later that year would bring out Ninety-two Days: The Account of a Tropical Journey through British Guiana and Part of Brazil. He concludes his column with this:

“And so, looking back, we can say that, for once, those perfunctory greetings which we exchanged this time last year—‘Happy New Year’ to comparative strangers at a party, ‘Happy New Year’ on the telephone next morning to sleepy and depressed friends—have turned out to be genuine predictions. Let us repeat them again this year with more confidence. Dear readers, a very Happy New Year to you.”

[The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh in forty-three volumes is being published by Oxford University Press. The column quoted above, originally published in Harper’s Bazaar (London) on Jan. 9, 1934, is collected in Vol. 26, Essays, Articles, and Reviews 1922-1934 (2018).]

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