“Sheean established, as had nobody before him, that what counts is what a reporter thinks,” observed fellow correspondent Kenneth Stewart of the books that followed as “extensions and refinements” of Personal History. “I should guess that no book published in our time had a greater direct response from the working press itself or gave the public better insight into a newspaperman’s mind.” John Gunther put it more simply: Vincent Sheean was “the father of us all.”
Through the rest of the 1930s and the war, there wasn’t a media door that Sheean could not walk through. He authored more novels, translated Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Madame Curie, and Benedetto Croce’s Germany and Europe: A Spiritual Dissension, and wrote a play, An International Incident, for actress Ethel Barrymore. He continued to report for newspapers and magazines, as well as on CBS radio with Edward R. Murrow in London, and produced three more memoirs, which he wanted to title Personal History II, III, and IV, but ended up as Not Peace but a Sword (1939), Between the Thunder and the Sun (1943), and This House Against This House (1946).
The emotional intensity that continued to suffuse Sheean’s books was not a literary put-on. As far as he was concerned, those imaginary conversations with Prohme were real and ongoing. “I see her, Bernie,” he blurted out to a colleague, while they sat drinking in a Paris bistro. “There she is. There’s Rayna.” Sheean conversed with her while his companion looked on. Nervous breakdowns and wild drinking were mixed with eerily accurate premonitions, the most spectacular of which was his prediction that Gandhi was going to be assassinated by one of his own kind, a Hindu. With credentials from Holiday magazine, whose range of interests belied its title, Sheean went to India. A few days after he arrived in early 1948, a fanatic Hindu fatally shot the Mahatma while Sheean stood a few paces away. Afterward, he wrote Lead, Kindly Light, which mixed his experience with a study of Gandhi’s spiritual life.
As happened with so many correspondents, when cold-war certitudes about Communism drove out other questions, Sheean’s fame faded. By 1949, when Lead, Kindly Light appeared, not one of the ten top-selling books for the year was by a journalist, let alone a foreign correspondent. The public was hungry for lighter fare: three of the top sellers were how-to books about winning at canasta, and another was Norman Vincent Peale’s A Guide to Confident Living. “One wonders,” wrote a reviewer of This House Against This House, “if this type of intimate, first-person journalism hasn’t about outlived its usefulness as a serious contribution to world thought.”
It is a question still worth pondering.
For the modern reader, Personal History celebrates a lost golden age of foreign correspondence. News outlets were plentiful. The dollar was strong and the cost of living abroad cheap. Americans were well liked. Editors could not yet reach a reporter on the steppes of Russia by pressing a few telephone buttons. In those days, American correspondents enjoyed great freedom, and large numbers of them spent years abroad, roving and learning. When it came to foreseeing the impending World War II, Sheean wrote, “International journalism was more alert than international statesmanship.” This self-confidence makes for a poignant contrast with our current pop-cultural image of the foreign correspondent, a disheveled figure most often freighted with angst. “It’s not a fucking forties movie,” says a character in The Killing Fields. “You can’t just get on a goddamn plane and make the whole world come out right.”
We cannot bring back that era. But in a world in which our security is threadbare and questions abound about what is happening and why, the need for foreign reporting is no less urgent and Sheean’s approach no less compelling.