Our Times, Vol. Iv: The War Begins (1909-1914)

by Mark Sullivan
[Scribners, $3,75]
MR. ALLEN’S brilliant book, Only Yesterday, appearing between the third and fourth volumes of Our Times, may have caused some of us to forget what a monumental and extraordinary work Mr. Sullivan instituted when his first volume was published in 1926, and now has brought to its penultimate stage. History is difficult enough when time has supplied the perspective which the present — a forest filled with obscuring trees — is incapable of affording. To write the history of a past which has barely ceased to be the present, the journalist and the historian, each of uncommon capacity, need to be rolled into one. If Mr. Sullivan’s preceding volumes have indicated that he represents such an amalgam, this new volume establishes the fact little short of triumphantly, and makes the fifth and last an event to be awaited with the keenest anticipation.
In careless retrospect the five years with which this volume deals may seem to have resembled the calm that precedes a storm. In reality they were years of peculiarly rapid and momentous change. The many aspects of it cannot even be suggested in these few words. With the skill of an accomplished journalist the author pounces on the topics, large and small, that ‘signify’ and lets none of their saliency escape in the presentation. Even one such slip as taking a passage in the Anglican Catechism for a prayer recited every Sunday by millions is a comforting reminder of fallibility.
Instead of trying to look at the book as a compound of a wide diversity of elements, let us concentrate on one chapter and one substantial section made up of nineteen chapters. The single chapter is called ‘New Influences on the American Mind.’ In this Mr. Sullivan deals with Freud, Omar Khayyám, Shaw and his contemporary iconoclasts, and New York as an influence in itself. With none of the dogmatism of an outraged graybeard, but with a rare perception of the facts of the matter in each case, —none more fairly and searchingly treated than that of Freudism and its effects, — he sets forth the plight of those who ‘feel always the need of stability and security, of fixed anchorages of faith, authority, rule, command, familiar paths, fixed ways, appointed hours, the protecting walls of rutted courses.’ Mr. Sullivan’s study of the rapidly changed America marks him as a penetrating chronicler of much besides exterior things.
The longer passage, of nineteen chapters, — nearly half of the book in bulk, — has to do with Roosevelt and Taft, their ruined friendship, and the portentous consequences. Mr. Sullivan’s editorial association with Collier’s Weekly allied him with the Progressive side of the conflict, yet without blinding him to the admirable qualities of Taft, a part of whose ‘tragedy,’ he says, was that he ‘was a static man in a dynamic age.’ Nor does a recognition of what was admirable in Roosevelt blind the writer to his limitations. The result, growing in large measure also from a rare inside knowledge of the political and social intricacies of Washington, is a picture of a tragic episode in our presidential history so faithfully and poignantly drawn that it may well occupy a permanent place in the annals of American life. This picture would of itself be the making of any history owing so much to the best journalism as this.