America in Midpassage
The Atlantic BOOKSHELF
by Macmillan, $3.50][
NOBODY but the Beards could have even commenced to write the contemporary history of the United States, 1924-1938, in a volume of less than a thousand pages so as to produce an account having the scope, fullness, accuracy of detail, unity of plan, and dramatic literary presentation found in America in Midpassage. To say that it forms a worthy companion to their monumental Rise of American Civilization is inadequate praise. For the present book attempts a more difficult task. It is an account of a movement still going on and a movement in which we are all, for better or worse, caught up. To achieve the objectivity that marks the Beards’ account of the unfinished turmoil of the last fourteen years demands a closer realistic grip upon events than was needed in writing of the past.
Were I asked for the cause of this achievement, I should say that in addi-
tion to thorough scholarship — obviously a necessary condition—the clue is suggested by the word ‘Midpassage’ in the title. The sense of an unfinished process of transition, the sense that no one can be sure of the issue of the events in which we are involved, is manifest in every chapter. The writers have their preferences as to what the issue should be. But their abiding feeling of an ongoing historic process prevents their adopting it as a method of interpretation and criterion of judgment. In the account of the development of foreign policies in the United States the preference of the writers seems to me to appear more emphatically than in their dealing with other topics. But, after an account of four competing policies, it is added, ‘As in all such cases, history to come would pass judgment on the competing conceptions.’ A phrase used in another connection, ‘outcomes of history and forerunners of destiny to come,’expresses, I believe, the spirit in which the book is written, and the authors, in spite of warm convictions, show no desire to usurp the place of destiny.
The scope of the book is extraordinarily inclusive. That it covers the range of political events from the ‘summer solstice of Normalcy, the high plateau of permanent peace and prosperity,’of the Coolidge administration, through the ‘dissolutions’ of the Hoover administration and the subsequent ‘detonations’ in finance and industry, and then through the promulgation of the New Deal, the election of ‘36, and the policies of the next two years, and that the treatment keeps politics and economics in constant alliance, is what would be expected from the past record of the writers. Nor is it a cause for surprise that one chapter should be given to discussion of the ‘Interplay of Court, Congress, and President,’since Charles Beard’s interest in the history of the Supreme Court is familiar from his previous writings, if the treatment of labor in the chapter entitled ‘Urban and Rural Labor in Evolving Economy’ does not seem to have as unified a pattern as the subjects of most of the other chapters, the fault, if it be one, probably lies in the confused and uncertain position of labor itself rather than with the authors.
As in the earlier volumes on American Civilization, the political-economic record is supplemented by well-documented chapters dealing with the arts of entertainment, including the rise of radio and movie, with literature, painting, and music, with science, and with ‘the frames of social thought,’ about two fifths of the whole book being given to an account of developments in these subjects since 1924. There will doubtless be differences of opinion
Underwood & Underwood
MARY R. BEARD
CHARLES A. BEARD
about the importance of men and women selected for especial notice, but there can be none about the range of the documentation.
The volume ends with a chapter called ‘Toward a Reconstruction of Democracy’ which points out how events have compelled a revival and closer scrutiny of the idea of humanistic democracy. In this chapter occurs a summary of the rôle of President Roosevelt in carrying forward the tradition of humanistic democracy which has been a dynamic in American life since colonial days. The Preface is dated ‘Winter, 1938.’ There is in consequence no complete account of the reaction which has grown so rapidly during the last year. But I should have greater confidence in the healthy development of the American ideal of humanistic democracy in the coming years if every editorial writer, every radio commentator, every legislator, and every administrator in the United States had beside him and used for constant reference the Beards’ account of our unfinished midpassage course. A subtitle might well be ‘Lest We Forget.’