1898: The Birth of the American Century

by David Traxel

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

400 pages, 1998

 

America 1900: The Turning Point

by Judy Crichton

Published by Henry Holt and Company

288 pages, 1998

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

The More Things Change...

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce  

 

When I was in high school I discovered a series of small-format books, put out by Time Magazine, each volume emphasizing the events of a single year during the 20th century. They weren't lengthy examinations, but I nonetheless found myself engrossed. And enlightened to see how many noteworthy happenings -- both momentous and minor -- could be jammed between the calendrical confines of a year. For some time after that I built up files of newspaper clippings, thinking that someday I would have the raw material on which to base a similar series of my own.

Well, my mother finally tossed those clippings (which I had made the mistake of storing in a damp basement corner). But ever since, I've been attracted to books that concentrate on just one year. The problem always is in identifying a 12-month stretch that makes clear the culmination of incidents preceding it and also conveniently portends occurrences to come. For instance, if we look solely at America's past, is 1776 (when the Declaration of Independence was approved) more significant than, say, 1789 (the year George Washington was elected president and the first Congress met in Philadelphia)? And does an examination of 1917 (when the US entered World War I) tell us more about the country's development than one about 1941 (which marked America's entry into World War II)? The fact is, every year can be made to sound crucial. And not crucial enough.

David Traxel, author of 1898, and 1900 writer Judy Crichton must have struggled separately with this quandary. In both of their new books (and with substantial overlapping of anecdotes and characters) they seek to prove that their title year found the United States and its people on the most vertiginous edge of a new era, awaiting great economic, political, or social shifts. Neither can be said to have succeeded entirely in this effort.

* * *

Philadelphia historian Traxel takes as his premise that the American-dominated 20th century got a two-year jump on the calendar. Eighteen Ninety-Eight saw the first sale of a gasoline-powered automobile made in an assembly process; the prodigious growth of New York City (as it swallowed Brooklyn and other boroughs); the first million-dollar advertising campaign (for a biscuit, of all things); the annexation of Hawaii (against the wishes of the islands' queen); the high point of a circulation war between New York newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst; and, of course, a real war against the Spanish in Cuba that ultimately led to the United States acquiring the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Regrettably, for those of us not utterly charmed by talk of military strategy, it's the Spanish-American War that consumes about half of this work. Undoubtedly because that event, more than any other, proves the author's thesis. Traxel recalls how President William McKinley -- reluctant to commit his nation's creaky war machinery to what critics debased as an imperialist endeavor -- was forced into action by the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor, a bellicose Congress, and a new generation of men who wanted to live up to the example set by their fathers, most of whom were Civil War veterans. "Young men," writes Traxel, "wanted a real, if romantic, whiff of gunsmoke, blood, and steel; they wanted a chance to be their own heroes."

Although the Cuban conflict was a short and massively bungled affair (soldiers were unprepared for jungle fighting, and many more died from tropical diseases than bullets), it did close bitter divisions between America's North and South that had lain open since the Civil War of 1861-65, and it produced a number of engaging figures. Those included "Rough Rider" Theodore Roosevelt, seen here in all of his self-promoting glory; Richard Harding Davis, a handsome, square-jawed writer who, in that era when reporters were first surpassing editors as national stars, became "the great emblem of youthful American journalism"; and Stephen Crane, who followed up publication of The Red Badge of Courage with a stint reporting on the Cuban hostilities. Extended passages from Crane's war dispatches are special treats in these pages. Here he recalls seeing a redheaded Spanish corpse, lying near an enemy trench:

I wonder how many hundreds were cognizant of this red-headed corpse? It arose to the dignity of a landmark. There were many corpses, but only one with a red head. This red-head. He was always there. Each time I approached that part of the field I prayed that I might find that he had been buried. But he was always there -- red-headed. His strong simple countenance was a malignant sneer at the system which was for ever killing the credulous peasants in a sort of black night of politics, where the peasants merely followed whatever somebody had told them was lofty and good. But, nevertheless, the red-headed Spaniard was dead. He was irrevocably dead. And to what purpose? The honour of Spain? Surely the honour of Spain could have existed without the violent death of this poor red-headed peasant? Ah well, he was buried when the heavy firing ceased and men had time for such small things as funerals. The trench was turned over on top of him. It was a fine, honourable, soldierly fate -- to be buried in a trench, the trench of the fight and the death. Sleep well, red-headed peasant. You came to another hemisphere to fight because -- because you were told to, I suppose. Well, there you are, buried in your trench in San Juan Hill. That is the end of it, your life has been taken -- that is a flat, frank fact. And foreigners buried you expeditiously while speaking a strange tongue. Sleep well, red-headed mystery.

Traxel has a researcher's sharp eye for curious episodes, such as an unexpectedly late skirmish with Chippewa Indians in Minnesota, the lust-killing of McKinley's randy brother-in-law back in Ohio, and the tale of how L. Frank Baum impulsively arrived at his name for the magical kingdom of Oz. However, he makes a few embarrassing errors (in one case writing that Henry James moved to England in 1898 -- something he'd actually done 22 years before) and he delves deeply into obscure events while practically dismissing the value of other deservedly less arcane ones (among those, the Klondike gold rush of 1897-99, which put an end to a depression that had crippled the United States since 1893). Traxel also proves again why historians generally make lousy commentators: he shines at collecting facts, but shies strangely away from interpreting them or giving them modern context.

* * *

Judy Crichton is a long-time producer of PBS-TV's award-winning series, The American Experience, and her 1900 is the companion to an extended episode of that series (set to air initially on Wednesday, November 18). While she's not appreciably better than Traxel at framing historical news and newsmakers within the nation's timeline, there's humor and a human scale in her new book that make 1900 a more appealing work.

One of the most enlightening results of reading this tome is to realize how many topics of discussion and concern Americans share with their predecessors of 100 years -- from racism to drugs, anxiety about big-money politics to disgust with the rampant merchandising of Christmas. Disasters made news then just as they do now, with Galveston, Texas, being nearly wiped clean off the map by a 1900 flood. And if you thought the recent assassination of a Democratic legislative candidate by his rabidly partisan Republican opponent in Tennessee was an aberration, well, you obviously haven't read Crichton's account of the 1900 shooting in Kentucky of a newly elected Democratic governor by one of his GOP rival's zealous backers. Of course, the coming race for the US presidency will bring into focus yet another topic common to the beginning and end of this century. Except that in the contest of 2000 the candidates will undoubtedly boast of near-identical campaign approaches, as they most certainly did not in 1900, when Republican McKinley remained on his front porch in Ohio while his recently named vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, stumped across the country on the heels of perennial Democratic hopeful William Jennings Bryan.

Freed from having to detail a year dominated by the arcana of wartime maneuverings, Crichton paints 1900's highlights through the eyes of a diverse set of people from across the United States, some of whom found fame, while others -- like bohemian photographer Frances Benjamin Johnson or African-American poet Laurence Dunbar -- have been unjustly misplaced in the folds of time. Here, for example, we find Jack London embarking on his writing career; a young Harry Truman becoming fascinated with government; Scott Joplin working up his "ragtime" musical riffs; and the Wright Brothers trying to keep their flimsy airplane from nose-diving into the sand at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Crichton revels in combining serious, world-shaping developments with smaller but equally engaging ones. Especially delightful are her notes about Robert E. Peary's quest for the North Pole and how, after not hearing from her husband for a year, Josephine Peary set off in pursuit... only to find herself on a ship with the explorer's Eskimo mistress and their child. "It was the first time the two women had met," Crichton explains, "perhaps the first time either had known of the other. They would now spend the next eight months together. Peary would join them the following May. The details of that reunion would never be made public."

Despite author Crichton's subtitle -- "The Turning Point" -- her book doesn't so much make the case that 1900 was a watershed year as it seems designed (with the inclusion of numerous period photographs) for people who simply want to look back nostalgically on the last turn of a century. Maybe that's the same thing I wanted out of those Time books and why I still think of them fondly. They provided less scholarly analysis than they did a chance for me to see what I had missed by being born so late in the history of the world. | November 1998

 

J. KINGSTON PIERCE is a contributing editor of January Magazine and the author of several books, including the PBS-TV tie-in America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995). A Seattle resident, he's currently working on a collection of essays about that city's past.

More information about the people, events, and issues discussed in 1900 is available from PBS-TV's American Experience Web site.