In the words of one of my favorite aphorisms, "if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." My hammer at the moment is generational theory, Strauss and Howe's view of the procession and relations between different cohorts in American history. Once you put on those goggles, everything from politics to pop culture snaps into a particular alignment.
Last night, I watched Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's 1941 masterpiece that was one of the great early artistic achievements of the Veteran generation (Welles was born in 1915, a first-wave Veteran). The film traces the career of fictional newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane - notoriously modelled on real-life mogul William Randolph Hearst - from his childhood in Colorado in the 1860s through his idealistic youth to his final pathetic days as a lonely, frustrated recluse. Kane is an iconic representation of the Missionary generation, the idealistic children of the post-Civil War era whose youthful exhuberance defined the "Gay 90s" and whose reforming instincts put teeth in the programs of the Progressive era. Their Presidents ranged from the feckless Warren Harding (a charming hack undone by loose personal and professional morals), Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover (arrogant, stiff-necked moralists whose stubborn pursuit of failed policies doomed the country to Depression), and Franklin Roosevelt, the inspirational "big-picture" man who, in 1941, was already well-established as the national father-figure.
The Missionaries were an earlier iteration of the "idealist" generational type, today represented by the Baby Boomers. Citizen Kane is fascinating because it provides an elegy for that generation's life-trajectory, successes and failures from the point of view of their children, the rising "civic" generation - the Veterans in the 1940s, today analagous to the Millennials. Idealists in the eyes of Civics are larger-than-life characters full of a moral certitude that grows rare in society as Civics reach maturity. Civics see their youthful rebellion against the stodgy, materialistic Reactives (Kane's banker foster-parent in the film, an iconic "Gilded Age" character) as liberating but short-lived. As they age, their values become warped into self-righteousness. Eventually, they seek to control youth and make young people conform to their ideals without regard to their real wishes, as Kane seeks to turn his second wife Susan (a disollute member of the GenX-like "Lost Generaiton" of the 20s) into a great opera star to gratify his own vanity.
Idealists end up, in the eyes of their children, as extinct volcanoes, having seen their great crusading spirit ferment into tone-deaf certitude that is almost pathetically out of step with the more pragmatic tone of the times. They die alone amid the vast store of material posessions they aquired to fill the void in their hungry souls, wistful nostalgia for simpler times on their dying lips, an intriguing but ultimately unsolvable enigma to their posterity.
Today, the Millennial Orson Welles is probably still finishing film school at NYU, and the Boomer Citizen Kanes are still embroiled in the third act of their great generational drama. In about ten years, however, I expect we will see the next great American epic on the model of Citizen Kane, taking the life of some great and aged Boomer icon with a complex legacy of public achievement and personal failure (Bill Clinton, perhaps?) as a metaphor for the American experience of the latter 20th century. Idealists may have their ups and downs as leaders, but they make great theatre.