We forget how many outlets freelance correspondents had in the interwar years. Sheean wrote for Asia magazine and the North American Newspaper Alliance, which serviced a number of American dailies. Both used him extensively, but without monopoly. His reporting, along with short fiction, appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Woman’s Home Companion, Collier’s, Century, Saturday Evening Post, Commonweal, and The New Republic. In France between assignments, he worked for another English-language Paris newspaper, the Times, which lacked circulation and revenue, but not talented journalists. The newspaper appeared to have correspondents everywhere in fact, its clever staff more or less imagined what was happening abroad, and wrote it with authority. In between this and more travel in Europe, Sheean wrote another book of reporting, The New Persia, and his first published novels.
Sheean’s swashbuckling adventures in the Riff brought him a Richard Harding Davis sort of fame. Rumors during the first trip circulated that he was killed; on the second, he was supposedly shot as a spy. As useful as this was to his career, Sheean was impatient with superficial thrill-seeking, as well as “professional indifference to the material of journalism.” Davis, in his A Year from a Reporter’s Notebook, found coronations and wars “interesting” a word he liked quite a lot. For him, these were merely events without any profound significance. But Sheean dove below the surface of the news to seek its meaning. It was this quest that energized Personal History, which ended this way:
Even if I took no part in the direct struggle by which others attempted to hasten the processes that were here seen to be inevitable in human history, I had to recognize its urgency and find my place with relation to it, in the hope that whatever I did (if indeed I could do anything) would at last integrate the one existence I possess into the many in which it had been cast.
The decade in which I had pursued such a conclusion through the outer storms had ended, and I was on my way back to a civilization that could never again be so sure of itself, never again so blind.
Personal History, Sheean wrote in a preface to a later edition of the book, “is, I suppose, a hybrid form, and is neither personal nor historical but contains elements of both.” In one way, the book was all about him. His experiences appeared on every page. Yet the autobiographical tone was deceptive. Much of his life was left out or obscured. The focus was on the events he witnessed. His persona was that of a self-deprecating guide. He could be any American searching for answers to the pressing political and social questions of the day.
A poignant foil in this drama was the beautiful revolutionary Rayna Prohme another young American who also happened to be from Illinois. Sheean met Prohme in Hankou, China, where he had gone in 1927 as “your plain seeker-after curiosity —tending, more and more, to treat the whole of the visible universe as a catering firm employed in his service.” This industrial city had become the base for Communist operations after Chiang Kai-shek gained control over most of China and purged leftist elements from his government. Prohme worked for Mikhail Borodin, an agent of the Comintern, the Soviet Union’s organization for promoting revolution abroad.
Sheean fell deeply, if platonically, in love with Prohme and her commitment to Communism, about which they sparred for hours. After Hankou fell, Sheean smuggled Borodin’s wife out of the country. Prohme and Sheean subsequently met again in Moscow. Hers, he wrote, was “a marvelously pure flame, and even though I clearly could not hope to share its incandescence, it seemed to me that I must hover as near it as possible.” When she died of encephalitis in 1927, some seven months after they met, Sheean wept and drank disconsolately. He would go on to dedicate Personal History to her, and the concluding section of the book was an imaginary conversation with the deceased woman.
When Personal History appeared in early 1935, the praise was nearly universal. Mary McCarthy, known for her acid reviews in The Nation and elsewhere, pronounced Sheean “a human being of extraordinary taste and sensibility, who throughout fifteen years of turbulent experience has been primarily interested in moral values.” Malcolm Cowley, literary editor of The New Republic and a fellow sojourner in Paris, thought “the most impressive feature of the story is that besides being an extraordinarily interesting personal document, it is also, by strict standards, a work of art — [T]his autobiography, with a few names changed to give it the appearance of fiction, would certainly rank among the good novels of this decade.”