The Year We LostHistorians in the News
tags: public health, 2020, pandemic, COVID-19, Bad Years
The year 2020 has given more to the authors of history textbooks than it has to the writers of diaries. Decades from now, scholars will have a wealth of material for their accounts of this pivotal time, but when the people who lived through it look back on the timelines of their personal lives, many of them will find a gap where 2020 should be.
For all its eventfulness, 2020 has for many been a lost year, in several senses of the word: On top of an enormous loss of human lives, the pandemic paused many people’s progress on long-plotted family and career goals. It forced countless celebrations and holiday gatherings either onto Zoom or out of existence. And it warped many people’s sense of time, causing months-long stretches to seem interminable in the moment but like they passed in a blip in retrospect.
In about two weeks, 2020 will start being history. As it begins to recede into the past, how will we look back on this blur of a year?
No single event in American history seems to have yielded a lost year in the way 2020 has. The 1918–19 influenza pandemic certainly didn’t. “It was far more intense, with far more dread and far more tragedy,” John Barry, the author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, says. “But it was also brief, and it occurred in the middle of world war.” In any given city, disturbances to daily life usually lasted two to three months at most, so the suspensions of life’s rhythms were far shorter than what Americans lived through in 2020.
Reviewing the events that could be seen as echoing the present moment is basically a tour of the country’s large-scale, all-encompassing catastrophes. When I reached out to the four co-authors of the textbook America’s History, they agreed that past wars and economic crises brought losses that resembled those of 2020; they mentioned the Civil War, both world wars, the depressions of the 1870s and the 1890s, and the Great Depression.
Vassar College’s Rebecca Edwards, one of the textbook’s co-authors, told me that wartime often inspired “a yearning for the return of ‘normal life’ during a period of suffering and sacrifice,” and noted that deployment caused many couples to delay living together and having children. Similar patterns have resulted from long-lasting economic downturns.
Though more obscure, another possible precedent is the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The enormous explosion is estimated to have led to the death of some 90,000 locals, and it also sent huge amounts of volcanic material into the atmosphere, which turned a regional tragedy into a worldwide catastrophe: This dispersion contributed to a bizarre, extended summer cold spell in much of the Northern Hemisphere, including the U.S. In some American communities, nearly “a year’s production was lost, a devastating event in an agricultural society,” the University of Maryland’s James Henretta told me. Like the pandemic, this seemingly random disaster was highly dangerous, and highly strange to live through. “On July 4, water froze in cisterns and snow fell again, with Independence Day celebrants moving inside churches where hearth fires warmed things a mite,” one resident of Virginia recalled.
Even as the authors of America’s History suggested possible parallels to me, they also pushed back on the premise that each component of 2020’s lostness is even a break from the historical norm. In an email, Brown University’s Robert Self brought up the examples of immigrants, who frequently “defer their own lives in the service of building resources for their children,” and generations of Black Americans who have been “forced to postpone life goals because of racial/caste suppression.” For them and others, Self observed, “goal deferral is a constant necessity of ordinary life, not a detour from it.”
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