Our Times, Vols. I, Ii (1900-1908)
by Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1927. 2 vols. 8vo. xx+600+649 pp. Illus. $5.00 each.. New York:
WHEN a reviewer is limited to seven hundred words in which to discuss twelve hundred pages, his duty is obvious. He must merely tell as briefly as possible what a book is about and how well it is written. There is no space for detailed criticism.
The first of these two volumes was published in March 1926. It has already been seven times reprinted. The second volume is just out, and is a worthy successor to the first. Mr. Sullivan, in both of them, has essayed a new sort of historical writing. From the days of Green, we have been accustomed to historians who have paid their respects to the ‘life of the people’ while sticking pretty closely in the main to the political narrative as most important. We have also had innumerable volumes, chatty, gossipy, on manners and customs. The former type of history, while well intentioned, is apt to strike a critical reader as a bit like traveling in a railroad train on a long-preëmpted right of way and merely occasionally looking out of the windows to get a glimpse at farms and cities and people living their lives by the roadside. The second type, gossiping about the mores, is a little too jellyfishy — there is no spine. Mr. Sullivan has tried an entirely new type. His book has a spine. The collective life of the nation, military and political, is there, but the flesh about it is entirely different from that of any other book, and so the features of the living reality become different.
One of the most striking examples of this difference is in the early pages of his second volume. The ordinary historian, even if he were doing his best to bring in the ‘life of the people’ in the turn of the century and to comment on the intellectual fountainheads of that period, would follow well-worn paths. He would assume that the people got their intellectual equipment from the leaders of thought, and we should have a few paragraphs about one or another. On the contrary, whom does Sullivan stress for the purpose? McGuffey, who selected the material for the school readers which sold 122,000,000 copies and probably had more to do with forming the American mind in permanent moulds than any works of the intellectuals. This example will suffice to display Sullivan’s principle, and it is a thoroughly sound one.
In these two volumes we have, swept together, all the daily life of two generations — the styles of dress, the introduction of automobiles, vacuum cleaners, tonsorial styles, popular songs, changes in banking, racial components, fiction, food laws, cables, telephones, the rise and fall of reputations, petting parties old style and new, bustle and bustles, slimness and slang, all the swiftly changing panorama of the past astounding twentyfive years. It is not an easy book to criticize dispassionately for any man over forty, for in reading it one’s youth peers out from almost every page. We may think the author is devoting too much space to trivial songs and then we are suddenly lost in the full text of
There was an old man and he had a wooden leg,
and we are back to fifteen years of age and would forgive the author anything; or we come on
Dwelt a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine,
and that rollicking night in ’98 comes back to us with all its smell of beer and pipes, and the old crowd, Tom, Dick, and Harry; or we turn the page again, and with
Nita! Juanita! Ask thy soul . . .
No, this is not a book. It is one’s own past. Does the Atlantic really expect me, as I smoke my pipe and tap my Corona and run through Sullivan’s pages, and see all my boyhood unroll and unroll and unroll before me, and utterly unsuspected memories and emotions come forth from every page, to write just seven hundred scholarly words about it all? . . .
I have one minute left. The book is a bully book. Take a supposed historian’s word for it. Occasionally too trivial matters get too much space. That is criticism. But the idea is sound. The matter is sound. And the volumes wall provide infinite amusement for the young, and infinite musing for the middle-aged.
JAMES TRUSLOW ADAMS