The Making of History

IF it be true that the events of history are inspired by energetic individuals, and even more true that these events are experienced by simple, separate persons, then it should follow that the truest and at the same time I he liveliest way to record history is a description of the lives of persons. Three new books support this thesis in their several ways. Two of them—Pre-War America, a further volume of Our Times by Mark Sullivan (Scribners, $5.00), and The Great Crusade and After by Preston William Slosson (Macmillan, $5.00)— prove that biography is more interesting than generalized statistics by giving us what will seem to many readers an overdose of tabulated facts. The third, the Portrait of a Diplomatist by Harold Nicolson (Houghton Mifflin, $5.00), enforces our thesis more positively by allowing us to watch world events through the eyes of a man at once wise and sensitive, who had a part in shaping modern history. As an added gift we are told much and allowed to divine much of the wise man’s biographer, who is also his son; to draw a contrast, not so much between their acts as between their moods on the one hand Victorian earnestness, on the other the somewhat resentful superiority of the present day.
Mark Sullivan begins well. The first two words of his book, ‘ Theodore Roosevelt, at the very outset strike the personal note, fixing our attention on an individual who, as Mark Sullivan might say, was invariably first-class copy. The story of the Damon and Pythias friendship is related once again. There is some uniting of the strings when we come to President Butler as champion of simplified spelling; even this crusade is a chapter in Roosevelt’s history, since with young enthusiasm he insisted on imposing it upon the government printer. In the same way Roosevelt absorbed in his vigorous individuality Senator La Follette’s Progressive campaign and the exciting pursuit of the nature fakers.
The narrative enters a different movement with the chapter which the author calls ‘ An Emancipation, a profoundly interesting account of the pursuit and ultimate capture of the hookworm, with immense benefit to the Southern States. The story is admirably told, as is also the war waged by Charles Evans Hughes against the great life insurance companies, the first act in a steadily growing reputation. But in the later chapters one is constrained to wonder whether Mark Sullivan did not incur some danger in his detailed treatment of ‘the germ of laziness’; perhaps suggestion proved unexpectedly strong. For in these chapters the author contents himself with going over old newspaper files and making notes on the more startling items. The hapless reader is left to do his own digesting and synthesizing.
One is conscious of a like change of tempo, a transition from the concrete to the abstract, in Professor Slosson’s The Great Crusade and After, a careful and accurate chronicle of the part, played by the United States in the World War and of the period which followed, up to the year 1928. The personality of President Wilson of necessity dominates the earlier chapters, which are therefore to a certain degree biography. One misses, perhaps, a full record of the higher spiritual level reached by Americans during the war, the generous sense of heroic endeavor, of sacrifice, of high issues in which great masses felt that they had a share.
‘The war,’Professor Slosson quotes an army proverb, ‘will last a hundred years — five years of fighting and ninety-five of winding up the barbed wire. One is reminded of this proverb in reading Professor Slosson’s book; through one seventh of its length he records the participation of this country in the world War, and then in the remainder he winds up the barbed wire. One is full of admiration for the penetrating and painstaking cure with which he assembles and chronicles the facts of the post-war period, beginning with the first experiment in war-time Prohibition and ending with the latest aeroplane flights and scientific triumphs—for an account of the latter he is indebted to the pen of his gifted and versatile father. This volume is rather a book to be referred to than a book to be read, and it is probable that its author so intended.
Harold Nicolson’s biography of his distinguished father takes us back, by its method, to the stately lives of an earlier day — let us say, to John Morley’s life of Gladstone. But there is a difference in spirit. It was not the fashion in that earlier day — it simply was n’t done — to enlarge on the faults of one’s grandfather, or to publish the tragic fact that one’s grandmother took to drink. But Harold Nicolson may plead that, in making these sorrowful disclosures, he is moved by filial piety; his father suffered much hardship in his early years. Thereafter much of the spirit and color of the early biographies is captured, though it is not likely that John Morley would have written; ‘Lords Salisbury and Beaconsfield returned to London (in 1878) bringing “peace with honour."' Disraeli was leader of the British delegation at the Berlin Congress, at which, by the way, Bismarck is credited with a judgment on the two men: ‘Lord Salisbury is a lath painted to look like iron, but the old Jew means business.’ on the same page the name of the Pan-Slavist leader Aksakoff is misspelled, and a few pages later we are introduced to ‘mingey eypresses at Constantinople, leaving us in doubt whether we are in the presence of a new botanical fact or whether, as a note of modernity, Arthur Nicolson really wrote ‘mangey cypresses.’ The chapters in which Lord Dufferin plays the leading part, at once vigorous and charming, are among the best of the book.
The dispatches and letters of Sir Arthur Nicolson shed much light on two points that have been often canvassed of recent years; first, he shows conclusively that the German fear of the ‘policy of encirclement’ was a complete delusion, if it was not a pretext; second, the steady resistance of Germany to England’s repeated endeavors to slow down naval construction is made exceedingly clear. But there is no reference to Bernhardi, whose books so clearly foreshadowed the German plan of Weltmacht, the plan which was so soon to be tried and to come so near success. The book is excellently written; the intermittent notes of post-Victorian sad superiority add their element of spice.