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On the edge of an abyss
Question of the Day
One of the benefits of narrative nonfiction writing is that the writer and the reader both have the chance to revisit a broader historical epoch in slices. One can look for insights in a specific turning point in time or in a group of seemingly minor characters whose important roles have been obscured by better known players
In the three books at hand we have examples of just how good this approach can be as well as just how irritatingly unsatisfying the method can be in the wrong hands. “The Perfect Summer” is by far the best, even though it covers the briefest slice of time — the blistering-hot summer of 1911, which saw the beginnings of the slide from arrogant innocence, for Britons of all classes, that would carry them all three years later into the exercise in mutual mass murder we call World War I.
It is unfair perhaps to attribute some of the author’s skill at evoking this palmy period to genetic heritage; nevertheless, Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Bloomsbury set star Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, one of the most skillful and literate of that generation of British diplomat. In some of Ms. Nicolson’s descriptive passages there is the echo of received memory.
May 1911 clearly marked the end of one epoch and the approach of a new time. King Edward VII had died a year earlier, so the dreary rituals of a year of mourning could be discarded in anticipation of the ceremonies and social rejoicing of the Coronation Year for the shy, formal King George V and his even more withdrawn Queen Mary. The transference of the Crown was more than a ceremonial handover. Edward had been a casual, jolly sportsman with a keen eye for the bloodlines of the horses he raced and the women he made his mistresses. The Court that surrounded him had mimicked its sovereign and therefore was unsuitable for the new monarch, so a broader cultural change was inevitable.
Then there was the weather. May brought an unexpected heat and sunshine that was at first welcome but later stretched into debilitating rainless periods in which the temperature lofted into the hundreds and stayed there threatening crop yields and the tempers of the poor and powerful alike.
There were other pressures bearing down on the stolid, self-regarding British character. Political party alliances were crumbling and new ones forming. Old, divisive issues such as the independence of Ireland, the vote for women and working and pay conditions for laborers, which had seemed intractable during Edward VIII’s reign, now were barreling forward toward violent resolution one way or the other. Ms. Nicolson deftly picks a cast of characters that represents each stratum of society and how those issues broiled along with the weather.
Darting in from off stage and back away again is the problematic personage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who visited London twice, once to help unveil a memorial to the Royal Family’s common grandmother, Queen Victoria, and then to attend the Coronation. Meanwhile he was moving full tilt to build a navy to rival the Royal Navy and to test German might in the global scramble for colonies to exploit.
The new novelties that fascinated the upper classes seemed to only widen the gulf between them and their vast number of working poor. American imports such as corn flakes adorned breakfast tables, powerful new motor cars sent the nobility in a wider search for amusement and French imports such as the brassiere enhanced a spirit of sexual freedom. New political figures rose to challenge for power, a young Winston Churchill irritated as many Members of Parliament as admired him and fledgling labor union organizers and militant suffragettes launched strikes and protests against lethal factory conditions, often with equally lethal reactions.
And that of course is the point of Ms. Nicolson’s precise slice of this particular watershed of history; everyone was affected. She aptly quotes the remembrance of a countess of that summer, “We danced on the edge of an abyss.” The countdown to the fall was only three years away.
The challenge of this kind of historiography is that however thin one slices a particular look at a particular piece of history, it still must have a point. This is the fatal flaw in Ann Hagedorn’s “Savage Peace,” which moves the clock forward to yet another watershed year but fails miserably to deliver what should be an interesting examination of the struggle for civil liberties in the United States during that interval of the year 1919, between the end of World War I and the advent of the Roaring Twenties.
Such a book is badly needed, because it marks a time when Americans realized with shock that the end of the conflagration in Europe did not and could never mean a return to the imagined cultural certainties and privileges that had existed just five years before.
Choice of characters is the worst flaw in Ms. Hagedorn’s story when contrasted with Ms. Nicolson’s treatment. Not every character has to be famous to be sure; using the reactions of ordinary folk is just as good a way to illustrate one’s point. Ms. Nicolson picked up on the diaries of a 13-year-old named Brian Calkin, who was a choirboy with St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School and as such observed much of the great ceremony of that summer of 1911 from a front row seat. Her book ends in July 1918, when Brian’s parents opened a letter he had sent them in premonition of his death the week before. He was just 20.
By contrast, one of Ms. Hagedorn’s chapters is devoted to Sgt. Henry Brown, a much decorated black hero in the Great War. At a time when black soldiers were returning home to a worsening racial climate, Brown was tailor-made for the role of effective symbol-spokesman for his race. The sad truth is that he was not a facile public speaker, his promoters mishandled his celebrity and his impact on the broader civil rights crusade was negligible. One can’t help feeling cheated by the author’s breathless build-up of many such characters in her narrative, when the end of each story leads nowhere, at least in 1919.
Elsewhere, Ms. Hagedorn stretches to preposterous lengths to connect better known personalities to the cause of liberal thought, to each other, and to the year in question. British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington did lead an expedition in May 1919 to observe an eclipse of the sun that was to prove the validity of Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity.
She makes much of the fact that Eddington was a Briton and that he did a frightfully liberal thing in validating the shockingly new theories of a hated Hun physicist. The trouble is that Einstein’s theories were formulated in 1906 and had been under debate before, during and after the war. Nor is it a quibble that Einstein, although born in Germany, never considered his identity rooted there; he studied, worked and formed his theories in Switzerland.
This tendency to strain to make points that lead nowhere, when coupled with an annoyingly florid writing style, merely produces a book whose only real value may be to inspire some other writer to re-examine 1919 and the struggle to create a nexus of civil liberties in the midst of America’s return to the remembered normalcy of the pre-war era.
In “1920: The Year of the Six Presidents,” writer David Pietrusza shows the right way to pull together disparate characters into a coherent narrative. By rolling the tape forward just one year, this book portrays an America that has stopped looking backward and has begun to craft a new country and a new world role.
The six presidents referred to include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who would have liked a third term, and four others who began the year as pretty dark horses whatever their ambitions might have been. Roosevelt, who would have been the commanding leader for a Republican nomination, and stroke victim Wilson both soon died, but not before both took some formative first shots.
One of the more interesting tales in this clean narration is when the overweening Franklin Roosevelt importuned Herbert Hoover to form a Democratic ticket with him despite Hoover’s repeated insistence that he was a Republican. In the event it was Warren Harding, a genial ignoramus and sexual predator of Clintonesque proportions, who carried the day, a day that included women getting the vote, the ratification of liquor prohibition, and the joyful retreat of America into isolationism.
Any year can be a watershed year; it merely takes a good storyteller to make it so.
James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”
By Mark Davis
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