History as Soundbites

A televised vision of the twentieth century
December 1, 2010

We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century | Edited by Robert Fox | Overlook Press | 391 pages, $30

Reading We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century was a fast-paced but wrenching experience, since it left me splayed on the horns of a dilemma: whether to succumb to its pleasures or dig in my heels and protest.

Let me explain. The book is built around a mass of eyewitness accounts, many of them recorded by journalists. “All aim at the same magical effect,” explains the volume’s editor, Robert Fox (himself a reporter and broadcaster), “of giving the reader the sensation of being there at great and curious events, and with extraordinary people.”

TV’s vision of history, in other words. That at least was my sensation. Reading the book became like watching a vast televised documentary—gripping and apparently edifying at the moment, but upon later reflection, hollow and warped like a funhouse mirror. As presented here, life in the twentieth century has been largely a matter of violence and sudden death. A space alien, having read We Were There, would conclude that the era consisted exclusively of wars, with some exciting stuff like exploration and revolution thrown in; that the Earth was largely populated by venturesome, death-defying males (many of them journalists), and that human beings had no concept whatsoever of cause and effect. Events here just sort of happen, virtually naked of plausible causation and clad in the merest tissue of explanatory material. Yet they are still riveting and dramatic, so you keep reading, mesmerized like a kid in front of a widescreen. It’s fun, but it isn’t really history, or shouldn’t be.

It’s pretty clear that Americans live in a time of vast historical ignorance; it even seems to be accelerating. Some might argue that’s not such a bad thing in rapidly changing times, that the past simply has no precedent to measure the impact of things like iPhones.

That may be true for electronics. But we remain human beings, big mammals with the same genes and much the same cultural approach as our ancestors. We also seem to be prone to many of the same foibles, including a gift for historical amnesia. “Those who do not remember the past,” Santayana warned, “are condemned to repeat it.” Mark Twain remained skeptical about the repeating part of history, but he did add that “sometimes it rhymes.” That’s a useful notion. Just as rhyming helps us to sing a song, historical analogy can get a statesman oriented and ready to face a crisis, or explain to a population the whys and wherefores of events confronting them. History can be valuable stuff—if only more people would read it.

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Actually, there are plenty of signs that Americans (or at least some of them) do want to know about their past: witness the legions of genealogy perusers and Civil War reenactors. But you can only take such things so far. Real historical understanding requires access to a compelling and edifying body of literature.

Unfortunately, academic history, which generally does provide a balanced and analytic approach to describing the past, is all too often not much fun to read. In part, this is simply due to subject matter. Careful historical treatments of economic and technological developments, immigration, or labor trends are simply not as eye-catching as mass mayhem. That’s a given. But many academic historians compound the problem with an almost mulish proclivity to write badly, or more accurately, without any style at all. The end product is a kind of scholarly mush garnished with indigestible block quotes, all of it manifesting a profound indifference to the appetites of the reader.

There is also a reluctance to write narrative history—to present broad portraits of substantial chunks of time. Instead, the field is filled with specialists whose instinct is to produce monographs miles deep and inches wide. Yet we human beings are addicted to stories; it is our nature and heritage. This is what people look for when they come to history. And when they can’t find it, they stop coming.

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.”

And that’s not all. There’s the consternation of a journalist upon discovering that Ernest Hemingway had already emancipated the bar of the Hotel Ritz, a key booze-related contribution to the Allied liberation of Paris. The fact that the mushroom cloud at Bikini atoll was 23,000 feet high and 11,600 feet in diameter. A South African judge not sentencing Nelson Mandela to death. The words of an American general in Vietnam: “I don’t know how you think about war. The way I see it, I’m just like any other company boss, gingering up the boys all the time, except I don’t make money. I just kill people, and save lives.” The results of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical-weapons attack on Halabja: “Near by, a family of five who had been sitting in their garden eating lunch was cut down—the killer gas not even sparing the family cat, or the birds in the tree which littered the well-kept lawn.” A bit later, it’s Tutsi corpses littering the streets of the Rwandan capital Kigali. Then it’s two lovers, Serb and Muslim, four days dead on the pavement, cut down by sniper bullets in Sarajevo. The scene slides to New York and 9/11: “And then, within an hour, as my wife and I watched from the Brooklyn building’s roof, the south tower dropped from the screen of our viewing; it fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air. We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths….” Enter the War on Terror…and on and on and on and on. 

Take this book to the beach. Read it from beginning to end. Read it backwards. Start from the middle; it won’t matter. It’s history as sound bites; they are all pretty much interchangeable. You won’t learn much, but you won’t be bored. As the song goes: “It’s interesting when people die.”

Robert L. O'Connell is a contributor to CJR.