Our Times: The Twenties

by Mark Sullivan
[Scribners, $3.75]
MR. SULLIVAN’S vivacious history of the times we all remember is brought to a happy and hilarious conclusion in his chronicle of the Twenties. A realist in the most realistic of professions, Mr. Sullivan’s first concern is for accuracy, and the pains he takes to be accurate he very accurately states. First he prepares a deliberate and careful version of the events of a chapter. Then, printing fifty copies, he distributes them to as many participants in the events described; squares the replies with every existing record; balances every man’s testimony against his own card-catalogue memory; and then, with a knowledge practically as complete as his Maker’s, he retells the story of a fraction of his Maker’s universe. It is admirable practice, much to be recommended to the guerrilla historian of the day who uses his facts to garnish his theory. The result is conscientious, workmanlike, thoroughgoing, exact. It is everything but true.
The eternal difficulty remains. Truth is not absolute, but relative. It is not a collection of facts. It is the record of a state of being of the world at an instant, temporary and elusive. To recapture the moment the author must be artist as well as finder of facts. He must know the temper of the times he writes about. He must relive old emotions and make his reader feel them, too. Only so can he interpret the one to the other, make men understand the things that have been. Sound as are Mr. Sullivan’s mechanics, neither they nor any ‘system’ can establish the truth of history.
So it is that the history of The Twenties is somewhat misleading for all its accuracy. It recounts at length with energy and meticulous honesty the tragic story of Harding’s administration. Yet this most revolting episode in the history of our country is invested by the author with so much charity for the sinners, with so subjective a recognition of Mr. Harding’s amiability and the excellent intentions with which he paved the hell he made on earth, that the reader needs the full force of his own moral character to maintain a rigorous and just view. Whenever there is a doubt, Mr. Sullivan bestows its benefit on the pitiful figure of the President. He frees him of grave charges of speculation during his period of office. He gives the Scotch verdict of ‘not proven’ to the overwhelming evidence of his relations with a notorious strumpet. He passes over as unfortunate his culpable intimacy with Dougherty and his gang. He is tolerantly skeptical of any impropriety in the deal whereby the President sold his country newspaper for a sum which still makes journalistic proprietors throughout the country gape with envy.
Mr. Sullivan has a good head and a kind heart. As an historian he sometimes gives his heart precedence. But he makes history interesting, and to even the cursory reader he gives a surprising realization of its importance. From him, too, learned authors of learned books can learn the great principles of perspective.
When Mr. Sullivan passes from a chronicle of his chosen decade to a catalogue of its pleasures, its temper and its foibles, no reader will deny him his meed of praise. The young will laugh and the old will smile contentedly. Those were the days when we oldsters counted in the world. And how we did enjoy it!