Every Thursday, the TBT theme pops up on social media and with it, many historical images. Those images tend to remind me of Jack Finney, who wrote several stories about time travel into the past. While Googling Jack Finney, I ended up taking a little peek into the past at one of my favorite websites during the nascent internet era of the 1990’s. The site has been down for several years, but I stumbled into a webpage that still had a link to it. The link didn’t work, of course, but it contained the old URL that I was able to plug into the Wayback Machine and viola!
This website was quite handy as it contained details on authors that were, well, little-known. At least on the internet anyway. It is difficult to describe how slow information traveled before the internet. And that difficulty extended to finding authors whose work would be of interest. Most of this kind of info was exchanged by word of mouth. In the case of Jack Finney, I heard of him via Stephen King’s book, Danse Macabre. King mentioned that Finney’s work was akin to The Twilight Zone, but executed better. That piqued my interest, and this being the late-eighties, I headed off to the downtown library to find some of Finney’s stories.
The library was essentially the internet before the internet. Finding something in a library was much more time consuming than going to Google, but the best libraries had an ambiance that was hard to surpass. That has changed with the advancement of technology. The central library where I live has converted the stacks on the 2nd floor to conference rooms. And much of the stacks on the main floor has been removed for, you guessed it, computers. Libraries, like the book industry itself, are adapting to the needs of the computer age.
Three decades ago, though, it was the place where I found Finney’s work. Among the classic time travel short stories were The Third Level and Second Chance. The theme would be expanded upon with the novel Time and Again. Finney’s work was not restricted to time travel. Home Alone chronicled the adventures of Charlie Burke in his homemade balloon some twenty years before Larry Walters aka Lawn Chair Larry. Some critics threw flak at these time travel stories, especially those that presented the 1890’s as an idyllic era. Finney would attempt to rectify that in Time and Again with descriptions of some of the drudgeries of life in 1894. Why would Finney have found a captive audience for 1890’s nostalgia?
It may seem preposterous to think of the 1890’s as an era one would want to escape into. Certainly, no one would want to be stuck in 1894 and require medical care. The 1890’s also featured a slow, grinding depression with five consecutive years of unemployment over 11% – in a time of no social safety net. Globally, much of the world’s population was subjugated to colonialism (Interestingly, life under colonialism is a theme of many of the authors on the Little-Known Literaries site). How could anyone consider trading in life in the 20th century for that?
Jack Finney was born in 1911. By the time Finney was in his mid-thirties, he had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression. The end of World War II would not bring much relief to societal anxiety as it heralded the dawn of the atomic age and the possible end of humanity with it. The future? Just two months after World War II concluded, Life Magazine outlined the possible future with an article called The Thirty-Six Hour War, complete with imagery of atomic bombs raining down on the United States and life in bomb shelters. Taking a gander at that Life article, it’s no wonder some preferred to read escapist fare such as Finney’s work.
The theory of relativity had also taken hold in the public imagination. Einstein himself said, “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” This idea of time as a fluid entity gave Finney the perfect portal to present this concept as a dramatic device. To be sure, the methods of time travel Finney used were sheer fantasy, not pertaining to Einstein’s work at all where time travel to the past is very problematic at best.
Finney often used a technique where a character surrounded himself with artifacts from the period to travel to and self-hypnosis to make the leap into an earlier era. The movie Somewhere in Time uses this procedure as Christopher Reeves makes the leap back into the 1890’s. While not written by Finney, Somewhere in Time was clearly inspired by his work. Silly? Perhaps, but Finney’s story telling abilities allowed him to pull it off. I’ve wondered if Finney was inspired by his many research trips to the Mill Valley library where he resided. The first time I read the Life article on the 36 hour war was not on Google, or on microfilm, but in a library that had the complete history of real Life magazines bounded in the open stacks. It can be a remarkable experience to read historical publications in the same media the inhabitants of that era did.
And that brings me back to the Little-Known Literaries website I found again this week. Looking at it now, it might seem a bit rudimentary. During the 1990’s, the main form of accessing the internet was through 56 kbps dial-up. That precluded any intensive graphics or videos. The website, like many of that era, had a repeating image as its background. Designed in 1996 as part of a graduate school project, most likely HTML was used. As I write this post, I have the luxury of using a WordPress template which is comparable to using a Word doc. To appreciate what working with HTML is like, this is how the first paragraph of this post appears in that language:
What is also missing are spammy banner ads, dreadful comments sections, and misinformation. Reading the website as it existed in the 1990’s was quite similar to reading the original Life magazines that, you guessed it, have been since moved into the closed stacks of the library.
The Little-Known Literaries delivered as intended. Information on authors and their work, along with other like-minded writers the reader may be interested in. Leah Sparks wrote the section on Jack Finney and maintained the site for about a decade. While the Little-Known Literaries website was nominally a grad school project, it was obviously a labor of love as well. And that’s worth remembering, whether it is 1894, 1996, or 2015.
*Image on top of post is the Holmes Building, 152 E. Main St. in Galesburg, IL, 1899. Jack Finney attended Knox College in Galesburg and used the town as a setting for several of his time travel stories. Credit: Galesburg Public Library.