Intellectual spoilsports may deplore it, but as long as humans have ten fingers and ten toes, we will think about history in decades, centuries, and millennia. Besides, some centuries really do have a dramatic structure -- the last one, for example. A hundred years ago, the United States attained industrial maturity. Two fateful challenges to the social order ensued: mass immigration from Europe and Asia; and mass popular resistance to heightened economic inequality, the proletarianization of labor, and the political power of corporations and banks. The immigrants were assimilated, and the Populists were defeated. As a result, the United States became -- for better or worse -- a world power. As such, it was drawn into the European civil war known as World War I. That war and the subsequent economic turmoil gave rise to the statist ideologies, fascism and Communism. The mortal struggle between capitalism and statism took the form of a hot war (World War II) and a Cold War. Capitalism won, and history ended -- a chapter of history, that is -- in 1989.
This is the central story line of the last hundred years, from the closing of the American frontier to the collapse of the Soviet empire. By any reckoning, the main character in this story is the United States, the richest, freest, and most powerful nation in this or any other century. Henry James famously lamented that life in nineteenth-century America was too thin, too plain, too homespun to furnish sufficient material for the novelist. By contrast, twentieth-century America is an embarrassment of riches, and Harold Evans has made the most of it.
Evans is perhaps best known as the husband of former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, but he has had an interesting career in his own right. An Englishman (though recently become, as he proudly notes, an American citizen), he reported briefly from the United States in the 1950s, returned to edit The London Times and The Sunday Times, and came back in 1984 to head Random House, where he published the memoirs of Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell and stage-managed a meretricious list of the “100 Greatest Novels of the Century” that recently made much ignominious noise. He currently runs Mortimer Zuckerman’s media empire: the New York Daily News, U.S. News & World Report, and Atlantic Monthly.
Weighing in at six pounds, sumptuously produced, with nine hundred black-and-white photographs, The American Century may appear at first glance to be a coffee-table book. It’s a lot more than that. Into the volume’s fifteen chapters, each containing a thematic introduction, a dozen or so one- or two-page vignettes, occasional chronologies, tables, and excerpts, and innumerable lengthy and fascinating photo captions, Evans packs an extraordinary amount of information. And the illustrations! It is impossible to overpraise the skill and taste with which the photographs, drawings, and cartoons in The American Century have been selected, reproduced, and laid out. The effect is panoramic. There are superb photos from nearly every episode in the last hundred years of American history: the land rush and the range wars; a delegation of dignified Sioux and Cheyenne chiefs, about to vanish into history; “Coxey’s Army” of the unemployed marching on Washington during the depression of the 1890s; small boys with weary, reproachful faces, working in a Pennsylvania coal mine; a Filipino rebel facing a firing squad with unbelievable jauntiness; black World War I volunteers lined up naked for their induction physical; a grisly 1930 lynching in Indiana; Huey Long cavorting with cronies; the Nuremberg defendants in a relaxed moment; a Japanese officer in tears over the Emperor’s announcement of surrender; a happy postwar American family surrounded by a year’s worth of food; students sitting in at a lunch counter in Mississippi, with milkshakes being dumped on their heads; Nixon in China, holding his chopsticks uncertainly and sneaking a sidelong glance at Chou Enlai; a thoughtful Oliver North, pondering his next lie; Ronald Reagan modelling (in his younger days) for an undergraduate art class. In nine hundred photos, there’s scarcely a dud. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will never touch their coffee.
The text is also a rousing success, with a few exceptions. When taking the long view -- in the introduction, afterword, and ten- or twelve-page essay that begins each chapter -- Evans tends toward boilerplate. On the larger questions, he never strays an inch from the liberal conventional wisdom, particularly regarding international affairs. America in the twentieth century, he writes, “sustained Western civilization by acts of courage, generosity and vision unparalleled in the history of man” -- as if the Marshall Plan and the foreign aid program were not primarily about export promotion and global economic integration. The war in Vietnam “ended the liberal consensus that American had a duty to fight everywhere abroad for freedom” -- as if America’s many military interventions in the twentieth century were not primarily about preserving economic and strategic access, on favorable terms, to the rest of the world. “The great test of the Constitution” in this century “was the criminal conspiracy known as Watergate” -- as if the distinctive thing about Watergate were the Executive Branch’s infringement of civil liberties -- actually quite commonplace -- and not the fact that in this case the assault was directed against the powerful rather than the powerless, and was therefore quickly crushed.
Fortunately, the great bulk of the text is given over to shorter forms: biographical sketches, set pieces, and photo captions. Here Evans is masterly: unfailingly lively and informative, and sometimes eloquent, as in his treatment of the Ludlow Massacre, the end of the Pacific War, Johnson’s “Great Society” program, and in his handsome tributes to Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson. Poignant or piquant quotes abound. (My favorite is from an 1891 New York Times editorial welcoming my ancestors: “Those sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation.” Same to you, fella.)
The American Century is a splendid primer (or refresher). There will be many such retrospectives in the next few years, but few will be as entertaining and none will be as good-looking. “This is not a piece of merchandise,” Evans loftily informed Publishers Weekly; “it’s a personal vision.” Actually, as a personal vision it’s no great shakes. But it sure is a fine piece of merchandise.