Print journalists have helped to fill the void, turning out a steady stream of readable biographies, narratives, and even some insightful analytic histories. Gifted writers stretching from Frederick Lewis Allen through David Halberstam have illuminated the history of the twentieth century, backed up by others like Bruce Catton and David McCullough, who have done equivalent services for earlier time periods. What passes for historical consciousness in this country exists largely because of such efforts.
Of course, the journalistic approach has it shortcomings. Since its practitioners often lack deep learning in the area under study, their work sometimes falls prey to conventional wisdom, and seldom encompasses the best of new academic thinking. Still, if there is a better future for the past in America, it probably lies in the hazy territory between the print journalists and the professional historians, an amalgam that might promise both rigor and style to hungry readers.
The alternative—a mating of the scribes and the Tube—is served by We Were There. I’ve got to admit that to most palates, it will taste just fine: like caramel corn, virtually addictive. Whatever other shortcomings this book may have, it’s a great read. After all, it is human interest that interests humans, and this collection serves it up in copious quantities.
Sized for snacking—typically around three to five pages—almost all the accounts are exceedingly well written. So much so that a short vignette by Anne Frank, whom I remember as being a pretty good writer, seems almost flat by comparison. There are plenty of these nuggets, too, more than one hundred and fifty, on virtually every topic with a record of having stimulated a popular response at the time: an unbeatable formula for gluing eyes, including my own, to the page. There is an abundance of journalism, but also frequent dollops of diaries, memoirs, poems, songs, and novels to add a bit of complexity to the concoction.
None of this gets at the really seductive quality of We Were There. That is embedded in the text itself, among the chilling turns of phrase, the macabre details, the outlandish circumstances, the weird responses to catastrophe, the casual recounting of death. Being what it is, the book left me with just a series of impressions, a bunch of jagged particulars that stick in the mind like grit.
Consider some of these. A gust of wind destroying the Wright Brothers’ machine at the end of flight’s first day. A polar explorer on his way to a polite suicide: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Dating tips from the Albanian highlands, circa 1909: “Abduction of a girl demands blood, as does of course adultery.” The battered crew of the dreadnought Warspite being jeered as cowards upon limping home from Jutland. The musings of a chaplain during an all-nighter with a deserter set to be shot at dawn. The response of a House of Morgan partner to Black Thursday: “It seems there has been some disturbed selling in the market.” A journalist considering his prospects in Guernica: “[T]here hadn’t been a war in eighteen years, long enough for the ones who went through the last one to forget, and for a generation and a half who knew nothing of war to be interested.” The fact that in 1936, Mao had the world’s heftiest reward—$250,000—on his head. A Spitfire pilot about to strike a gaggle of Junker 88s during the Battle of Britain: “I’ll have your guts for garters.”