The phrase “Where are the Snowdens of Yesteryear?” was used by the character Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s World War II masterpiece, Catch-22.
The expression itself is a clever pun on the phrase “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” from Francois Villon’s 1462 poem “Des Dames du Temps Jadis “ or “Ballade of the Ladies of Bygone Times.” Villon used the phrase repetitively throughout the four stanzas of his poem to emphasise the passing of time and beauty that once lost can never be regained.
In Catch-22, Snowden was a tail gunner in Yossarian’s bomber. Snowden died in Yossarian’s arms, flying only his first combat mission. In a farcical scene, cries of agony echo across the intercom and no one is quite sure who has been hit. At one point it’s believed to be Yossarian, the bombadier, who later crawls to the rear of the plane and cradles Snowden in his arms during the gunner’s dying moments.
Snowden didn’t even have time to unpack his bags.
Later in the novel, Yossarian uses the question, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” in a disturbing and ironic manner to demonstrate the futility of war and the fact that once life is ripped from the body it can never be replaced.
From Catch-22 -
Yossarian was a collector of good questions and had used them to disrupt the educational sessions Clevinger had once conducted two nights a week in Captain Black's intelligence tent with the corporal in eyeglasses who everybody knew was probably a subversive. Captain Black knew he was a subversive because he wore eyeglasses and used words like panacea and utopia, and because he disapproved of Adolf Hitler, who had done such a great job of combating unAmerican activities in Germany.
Yossarian attended the education sessions because he wanted to find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him. A handful of other men were also interested, and the questions were many and good when Clevinger and the subversive corporal finished and made the mistake of asking if there were any.
"Who is Spain?"
"Why is Hitler?"
"When is right?"
"Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round broke down?"
"How was trump at Munich?"
"Ho-ho beriberi." and
all rang out in rapid succession, and then there was Yossarian with the question that had no answer:
"Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?"
The question upset them...