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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, June 28th, 2001


 

The American Century

by Harold Evans

Hello to All That

A review by Daniel Aaron

Harold Evans, English-born journalist, editor, publisher, and self-described "immigrant" to the United States, is one of a long line of trans-Atlantic commentators who have been looking at Americans (often down their noses) for several hundred years. In 1956, Evans came to the States on a travel grant that allowed him to criss-cross the country and to watch a nation, including its black and Native American minorities, during an election year. Some time later he became an American citizen, fascinated "with the idea of America and its unceasing struggle to achieve its ends." Such a statement hints of Manifest Destiny and National Mission; but the extraordinary burgeoning of the United States, as Evans tells it, had less to do with divine condescension than with a conjunction of happy accidents, historical and physiographical. The majority of Americans, he thinks, adhered to the gospel of "freedom" and "democracy" even when they did not practice it. What they "honored" were "the expectations of prosperity."

The American Century might be said to be a triumphalist reading of the country's "second century." If so, it does not scant the testimony of the defeated, the scorned, and the oppressed, or predict clear sailing for the Ship of State. Evans's Americans are ingenious, brave, flexible, and pragmatic; they are also avaricious, hubristic, and full of "just plain chutzpah." The "saving grace" of American society is its stubborn faith in the future, its restlessness, and its "organic optimism" that never "quite" congeals into complacency.

Not a "history," not a conventional chronicle or a disinterested random survey, and not at all a textbook, The American Century is first and foremost an illustrated political essay, a set of tableaux or choreographed historical episodes designed to introduce "new Americans" (and presumably old ones) to the years when the United States exfoliated into an international power. It is also a decade-by-decade account of selected events and people - not just the names enshrined in our national annals, but also those of the now near-anonymous men and women long dissolved into our culture and institutions. Finally, it is a story written without hokum or bias by a "new" American of his adopted country's political development from the end of the Civil War until it had become "the-most-powerful-country-in-the-world."

The "plot" of Evans's narrative might be boiled down to something like this. America's second century opens with the last great land rush, a stampede into the Indian Territory and the finale of a "perpetual land boom" that was in process for the preceding sixty years. (Evans calls it a "typical American triumph, fired by relentless optimism and self-righteousness, and sustained by an infinite talent for gadgetry.") God's clients -- the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Morgans, and so on -- had begun to harness America's industrial and financial energy, and by 1896 they had crushed the last serious agrarian revolt. In the course of its stumbling but irresistible momentum, the nation almost inadvertently acquires an empire. New immigrants, now largely from southern and eastern Europe, fuel the factories and plants and in the process transform urban politics. It is the age of the "Boss."

"Class war" heats up as the industrial machine roars and sputters through financial crises and depressions, through two hot world wars and a long cold one, and through an unending spate of social convulsions. Although distracted by its political scandals and imperialistic adventures, by Vietnam and Watergate and the rest, by its racial phobias and its ubiquitous Yahoos, the nation is strong and resilient enough to survive its blunders. At the end of its first 200 years, although not cocky or unaware of it s vulnerabilities, it takes its freedom and its prosperity pretty much for granted.

In fifteen chapters, Evans has chronologically spanned the century and arranged his cast of characters who made and rode the historical waves. Each chapter is introduced by a ruminative essay on a prescribed topic. Collectively, these essays are a digest of the narrator's guided reading (replete with quotable remarks, substantive and decorative, by scholars and public intellectuals on his wavelength) and his views on the "enduring themes" in American political and social history. Like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., one of his respected sources, Evans is more comfortable in the "vital center" than on the wild ideological frontiers -- and, one suspects, more averse to hard-core right-wingers than to political antinomians and cloud-cuckoos. Yet he wears no political badge and rarely tips his hand. Sometimes it is hard to tell why he allots more space to one subject or person than to another, why (to give one example) the "American Mussolini," Al Capone, should bulk larger in his history than the politically potent "Radio Priest," Father Charles Coughlin, even though Capone was the more photogenic and the more legendary of the two.

Still, Evans's vignettes of nineteen presidents fit neatly into the structure of the narrative and are deftly done. Popping up like signposts on the American Century highway, they stretch from the relatively obscure Benjamin Harrison ("underappreciated," Evans says) to George Bush. Bill Clinton is waiting in the wings when the curtain drops. None of them escapes at least a soupcon of censure, and none is invidiously contrasted with a predecessor or a successor.

Evans can be trenchant and flip. Theodore Roosevelt "talked loudly, but he carried a small stick." Wilson "could not bear friends who took a different view on the big issues. They were judged morally corrupt." "It was a frail presumption that while Coolidge dozed, the invisible hand of the marketplace was sorting everything out." Hoover "seemed incurably suspicious that if his fellow countrymen were given a helping hand they would turn into sloths." "It was bewilderingly his [Franklin Delano Roosevelt's] style to take a step forward and a brisk step back." Truman "had the good will but not the imagination, and the odious Stalin had neither." "As well as the smile, there was a profane vocabulary and a volcanic temper that Ike himself feared." Kennedy "had no intention of letting marriage curb his compulsive womanizing." "But Johnson's style, bred in smoky caucuses, was to obtain a consensus from a tightly knit group of power brokers, and then to sell the public the most palatable version." "It was always Halloween in the Nixon White House. They were continually spooked by leaks." Ford was "dogged by a press image as a klutz who stumbled on staircases and ski slopes." "Under Reagan the normal creative tension of democratic politics often seemed like a set of parallel lines doomed never to meet, wandering out into cognitive dissonance." It says something about Evans that while observing the 1956 election from Adlai Stevenson's bandwagon, he should find himself "unaccountably" cheering for Ike, and that for him the only titans in his presidential procession are the two Roosevelts, with Teddy clearly his favorite.

The most remarkable feature of The American Century is the artful synchronization of its written text (historical commentary, biographical essays, captions, boxed inserts) with its visual text -- a composite of cartoons, maps, drawings, and photographs (particularly the last) that complements the former like a musical score. Pictures of regional scenes and historical episodes, of politicians, judges, farmers, businessmen, gangsters, churchmen, soldiers, reformers, labor leaders, evangelists, policemen, and radicals punctuate the narrative flow. Quite a few must have been chosen because they shock, or are comically incongruous, or make strong political statements, or intangibly illuminate an occasion.

Here is William Jennings Bryan on a lecture platform in 1896 -- at 35, he is not quite the "boy orator" but still theatrically handsome and charismatic. In 1913, a high-steel man balances himself sixty stories up on a narrow beam of the unfinished Woolworth Building, symbol of America's sky-assaulting temper. Five Roman Catholic clergymen, tough and confident soldiers of the Church Militant, stand (circa 1913) on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City, reviewing a parade. Two black men hang from a tree in Marian, Indiana in 1930, as a not-unpleased crowd of men and women, young and old, mingle decorously below the swinging corpses. Twenty-three-year-old Ronald Reagan, modeling for a University of Southern California art class, stands in shorts improbably poised to throw a forward pass. A dowager in furs, right out of a Peter Arno cartoon, glares at John L. Lewis as he walks past her, regal and aloof, in 1949. Dean Acheson, his face twisted with anger and embarrassment, is trapped in an elevator with his grinning nemesis, Senator Joseph McCarthy (circa 1954). The killers of Emmett Till (1955) smile complacently after their predictable acquittal. Betty Friedan (1963) dusts a bust of Abraham Lincoln ("my oldest hero"). In a Miami restaurant, Muhammad Ali, recent victor over Sonny Liston, looks impishly up at Malcolm X, who is snapping a picture of him (1964). President Johnson looms like an impending avalanche over a recoiling Abe Fortas (circa 1964). A grubby Billy Carter, the president's brother, drinks a can of beer in his grubby gas station (circa 1977).

Evans chose these and other photographs from the thousands gathered over twelve years by his "infinitely resourceful" collaborator and photography specialist, Gail Buckland. They concur, she writes in her acknowledgment to the regiment of archivists and curators who supplied her with materials, that "photography is not only a dynamic means of visual education but also a vital source in comprehending history," and that their book is a "marriage of texts and photographs, each having equal weight and power."

Words and images do interact synergistically in The American Century, and the photographs are more than merely documentary. They can be the equivalents of bitter editorials, as in Lewis Hines's astonishing study of the faces of four child-workers employed by the Pennsylvania coal company in 1911. They catch prominent people without their masks, sneak in sly social observations, make people ridiculous, tell jokes, blow life into the dead. (Scattered through the twenty-two-page bibliography are candid snaps of presidents from Taft to Clinton tossing out or catching baseballs, the easy motions of Eisenhower, Ford, and Johnson in contrast to the prim and awkward deliveries of Coolidge and Nixon.) Photographs of this kind, technically good or bad, can gloss and vivify a text, but they are just as slippery and prone to manipulation as words, and no less susceptible to willful distortion.

The size and the heft of The American Century, and its lavish pictorial display, might suggest that it was designed for coffee tables. In fact, it is the work of a very knowledgeable journalist and a very good writer who has studied the land, consulted a gamut of advisers, read a lot of books, and then drawn his own chart of America's "ebbs and flows" during its second century. He calls this distillation of selected personalities and events a "history for browsers," and he invites them to dip into or break out of the narrative at any point in his many hundreds of pages. It might also be described as an essayistic chronicle of American society and politics written with a few rhetorical flourishes, and as a brief for the author's adopted country. Evans is a fair-minded if not a completely impartial historian. Far from glossing over discreditable moments in the nation's history -- in Emerson's phrase, its "mumps and whooping coughs" -- he makes them sound as American as apple pie. The kaleidoscopic society that he scrutinizes is open and hedged, philanthropic and materialistic, peaceful and violent.

Evans neither dwells upon nor reconciles these contradictions, if such they be, any more than he tries to rub off the spots on the national escutcheon. He writes of endemic jingoism and "racism," of the crimes against Native Americans and black Americans, of the "pillaging" of the public domain, of creeping urban decay and the deterioration of the school system, and of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Yet running parallel to these blights are mini-stories about men and women, many of them obscure and forgotten, whose civic heroism is redemptive, and who must be reassessed, he writes, if we are to understand "how we have shaped our history." The American Century begins and ends with a sonorous affirmation: the country that "sustained western civilization by acts of courage, generosity, and vision unparalleled in the history of man" will endure "while freedom lives."

All the same, there is a whiff of the jeremiad in Evans's sermonical conclusion. Indeed, the last five chapters of his history (they cover the cold war, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, and the "Reagan revolution") show the republic in its worst moments and its finest moments. His doubts and his reservations are not explicitly conveyed, for he has no ax to grind; but throughout the narrative -- in sum, the story of shifting political groups together with the lives of individual figures who collectively incarnate his "America" -- he has been admonishing and passing judgment sotto voce.

By the time he takes up the administrations of Nixon and Reagan, Evans's writing has acquired a vibrancy and an edge less discernible in his account of their predecessors, who by comparison appear through a historical haze. Here his subjects are people and topics that he has not merely read about, and he is boldly injecting himself into the telling. His talents coalesce in his ambivalent impressions of the outwardly simple yet very elusive Reagan -- over-estimated and underestimated, brave and cheerful, politically canny, mentally slipshod -- and his "brittle" wife. (Brittle?)

Anyone who reads through this thick encapsulation of a hundred years cannot but come away with a fresh perspective on the United States, and not simply those for whom ancient history begins about five years ago. At moments the book gives the impression of having been concocted and cobbled. Evans has not always digested the plethora of facts that his researchers have dug up for him, and sometimes he betrays his haste. No matter. His book is full of not easily obtainable information, and the writing throughout is spirited, uncluttered, and concise. The literate young will like its breezy colloquial tone and its untextbookish improprieties, and it will stimulate and provoke the historical-minded who have lived through a good chunk of his "American century," as it has stimulated and provoked me.


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