Brief Encounters

Short reviews of A Journalist's Diplomatic Mission and The Noir Forties

A Journalist’s Diplomatic Mission: Ray Stannard Baker’s World War I Diary | Edited with an introduction by John Maxwell Hamilton and Robert Mann | Louisiana State University Press | 469 pages | $45.95

Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946) was in the first rank of the first generation of muckrakers. The most productive writer for McClure’s and The American Magazine, he reported incisively on racial segregation in Following the Color Line (1908). He left magazines in 1916 and retreated to a home in Amherst, MA, to become a nature writer pen-named “David Grayson,” only to be summoned away by the Woodrow Wilson administration. His assignment: report to the State Department, and sometimes to the president, on what he might find of interest in Britain and Europe as the Great War labored through its fourth year. Baker’s diary, published here in full for the first time, recounts his 17 months on assignment—first as a kind of roving reporter, then as Wilson’s press secretary during the peace negotiations.

The diary contains surprising perspectives—for example, Baker’s fear that, only about six months before the end of the war, and nearly a year after the United States entered the conflict, Germany was on the verge of a decisive victory, and peace agitation was on the rise. Baker sets down such alarming developments dispassionately, meanwhile interviewing dozens of Britons. He was respectful of most of them, but became exasperated at the smugness of Bertrand Russell, who baited Baker throughout the interview with attacks on the United States. A month after the armistice of November 1918, Wilson tapped him for the onerous task of handling the press while the peace treaties were written. Baker, when he had time, recorded the frustrating, tortuous backstory of Wilson’s struggle to forge a settlement.

With the signing at Versailles on June 28, 1919, he, and Wilson, caught the boat home—Wilson to tragic frustration and collapse, Baker to a life devoted in great part to memorializing the president, whom, he wrote repeatedly, he admired more than any other human being. Professors Hamilton and Mann have compiled a rewarding volume, although they might well have omitted a number of the official dispatches Baker sent to Washington, which are heavy on policy and short on personal insight.

The Noir Forties: The American People From Victory to Cold War | By Richard Lingeman | Nation Books | 420 pages | $29.99

As members of what might be called the lesser generation that came after the greatest, Richard Lingeman and I trod similar paths—born Midwesterners, growing out of our teens in the years after V-J Day, serving stretches in Japan, and spending nights in theaters viewing the harsh, tense, uninflected films that came to be dubbed, by the French, noir: The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia, Double Indemnity, and the matchlessly titled Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Lingeman, a senior editor at The Nation and the author of Don’t You Know There’s a War On?, seeks to create in The Noir Forties an innovative fusion of autobiography and conventional history against a backdrop of noir.

He chronicles a brief era that turned sour almost before the kissing stopped in Times Square. The opening of the main narrative is dark, as Lingeman invokes Meyer Berger’s classic story in the Times of October 27, 1947, about the arrival of the transport Joseph V. Connolly in New York harbor, bearing 6,248 soldiers’ coffins, a reminder that World War II had produced grief as well as victory. Nor does the darkness lift. Lingeman reflects gloomily on the politics and culture of those years—the approach of the Cold War and McCarthyism; the collapse of the New Deal’s Old Left, encapsulated in the ill-starred 1948 presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace; the pervasive air of anger and disillusion; and, ultimately, in 1950, the unpopular Korean War.

Along the way, Lingeman discusses dozens of films, asserting: “Films noir . . . reflected the personal anxieties of the late forties. They vacuumed up the psychological detritus swirling in the air, the velleities [fancies], secret wishes, criminal thoughts, unspoken fears, dream images of the times.” As a fellow member of the noirist generation, I am in sympathy with this framework, even if Lingeman’s bridge from the personal to the cultural to the macro is not always clear. Still, the undertone of blackness fits well a time that few can remember with nostalgia.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.