Hope and Fear in America, 1919
By Ann Hagedorn
Simon & Schuster. 543 pp. $30
A year is a reasonably precise way to measure the passage of time (though the necessity of Leap Year reminds us that it is an imperfect measure), but as a rule it's a poor way to categorize the passage of human events and the evolution of the world. Wars, for example, don't begin on the first day of a year and end on the last, nor do presidencies or natural disasters or anything else except, of course, years themselves. But that doesn't prevent journalists, astrologers and other shady characters from attempting to set each year apart from every other and read its events and dominant personalities as if they were tea leaves.
From time to time, to be sure, events coincide in such a way as to give a year a particular and definable character. In this country most recently 1968 was such a year, as were, earlier, 1776 and 1861. Now we have Ann Hagedorn arguing, at great length, that 1919 was another. Hagedorn, whose previous books are unknown to me, has a decided taste for clichéd and overripe prose, as this lengthy extract all too vividly demonstrates:
"Nineteen nineteen was a time in America when the pent-up hopes of a nation at war collided with the chaos of war's aftermath. It was a time when bombs exploded on porch steps and grown men threw sharp-edged rocks at little boys whose skin was a different color. And it was a time when working people, having experienced the highly organized, collective character of waging war, came to believe that through organized labor they could claim the power to achieve the happiness they felt they deserved after surviving such a war. It was a year when race riots erupted in twenty-six cities; labor strikes occurred at an average of ten a day; and always there was the looming terror of the new enemy, Bolshevism. It was indeed a year of struggle. An apocalyptic time, some would say. Others would say it was only a dark moment preceding a new day."
It was, according to Hagedorn, a time when "the nation seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into a quicksand of conflict and hatred," when the Justice Department and its allies engineered a Red Scare that frightened many Americans half to death, making it "a dangerous time to stand up for one's beliefs." It was also "a year that laid the groundwork for so many aspects of modern America -- from the struggles for free speech and black equality to the establishment of a system of domestic intelligence." Maybe so. Certainly, it was a year during which the nation was in flux, suffering the aftermath of World War I while laying the groundwork for what no one could see lying ahead: the frantic 1920s, the catastrophic effects and aftereffects of Prohibition, the rise of a distinct and distinctive national artistic and popular culture.
There was all of that, but Hagedorn focuses primarily on three subjects: Woodrow Wilson's popular triumph at Versailles, followed by the Senate's subsequent rejection of both the treaty he negotiated there and the League of Nations that was a part of it; the rise of black militancy against the backdrop of lynchings that were winked at by government at all levels; the Red Scare and its sponsors, most notoriously the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, and his young hireling, J. Edgar Hoover. That all of these were important is beyond dispute, but by focusing almost exclusively on them Hagedorn paints a decidedly distorted portrait of the time. It is a focus that permits her to display her boilerplate politically correct attitudes on race, free speech and peace but that tells us far less about the United States during this crucial time than she fancies it does.
Hagedorn has her heroes, though unfortunately of a fairly predictable stripe. One is Wilson, whose idealism she describes in loving detail but whose contributions to the deeply racist spirit of the times she scants; his refusal to stand unequivocally against lynching, for example, did nothing to discourage that appalling practice and probably did a fair amount to abet it. She is infatuated with Carl Sandburg, who was working at the time as a newspaper reporter while churning out some of the worst poetry the country had seen since the prime of James Whitcomb Riley, and she seems incapable of recognizing his naiveté and self-promotion. She does rescue from oblivion two men who don't deserve to be there: Harry Weinberger, a New York lawyer who worked diligently and effectively to save people from the web cast by Palmer, Hoover and Company; and William Monroe Trotter, a courageous African American who took it upon himself to try to confront Wilson with the discrepancy between the cause of freedom for which black Americans had fought in Europe and the refusal of white America (and its president) to grant them freedom in their own country.
Page after page after page, Hagedorn catalogues the dreary succession of lynchings, riots, strikes, arrests and trials with which 1919 was afflicted. Without belittling the importance of any of this, it needs to be pointed out that other things were going on in the same year, and that a book aspiring to be a portrait in full can scarcely be called one when all of these are slighted. Nineteen nineteen was, for example, the year when Prohibition was ratified, yet Hagedorn gives it scarcely a paragraph. The suffrage movement was about to win the vote for women, yet it gets not much more space. In October, the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, an event that, when the full details were revealed in 1920, left the nation in deep and lasting shock; the World Series gets four paragraphs and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose first novel was published in the same month, gets only one.
Obviously not everything that happened during this tumultuous and difficult year can be squeezed into a single book, and Hagedorn is fully entitled to emphasize what seems most important to her. But how can she virtually ignore Prohibition on the one hand while devoting several chapters to the obscure if mildly interesting story of a white woman and the black man she wanted to marry? She wants to use it as metaphor for white American attitudes toward interracial marriage, interracial sex and all the other racial and sexual bugaboos of the time, but as treated herein it never seems of any greater consequence than a footnote.
Then there is Hagedorn's prose. In her acknowledgments she makes particular mention of the Wall Street Journal, "where I learned how to write well," a quite astonishing boast in and of itself but all the more so when one considers the more than 500 pages of evidence to the contrary. Hagedorn has never met a cliché she didn't like: "To many it meant that Bolshevists had struck the Pacific Northwest like lightning bolts, soon to cause the nation to burst into the flames of revolution," or "It was there that the rolling wave of hope from the Western Front met the rising tide of fear and intolerance back home," or "But that message had no lasting significance and fell like the leaves of autumn into a rushing river."
Hagedorn, her publisher tells us, "has taught writing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism." If that makes you wonder about the standards of literacy at the country's "best" schools of journalism, well, you are not alone. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.