William L. Shirer, the popular historian whose chronicle of the Third Reich gave many of us a mammoth paperback to haul to the beaches 20 summers ago, has produced a much slimmer account of his nine-month assignment covering Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1931.
Disappointingly, Shirer's memoir adds little to our understanding of the fabled Mahatma. Indeed, it is the fable, the myth, rather than the man within it, that is the real subject of this book. Given Shirer's unblinking adoration of Gandhi, perhaps this is unavoidable.
Covering Gandhi, "to rub up against, if ever so briefly, the towering greatness, the goodness, the high spirits and humor, the humility, the subtlety of mind, the integrity and purity of purpose, and that indefinable thing, the genius, of this man was the greatest stroke of fortune that ever befell me," writes Shirer in what must be one of the most sweeping passages of praise in modern literature.
So striking was the impact of the wizened, enigmatic Indian on Shirer, then a 27-year-old correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, that the experience has guided him for half a century toward "the meaning of our brief sojourn on this perplexing planet."
There was, undoubtedly, in Gandhi, a force, structured out of personality and unconventional behavior, which inspired others to speak of him in similarly universal terms.
But there was also in Gandhi a strong element of hocus-pocus, of showmanship, of the shrewd politico who knew how to play to the grandstands at home and abroad.
Gandhi knew that it would be vastly more efficient to travel around India first class, rather than in the crammed, filthy third-class train compartments he insisted on. But he also recognized the enormous political dividends paid each time he stepped out of a dilapidated coach into a throng of impoverished peasants.
Shirer only touches on this, just as he brushes fleetingly over other tantalizing areas which beg for the insights that could be provided by a journalist of his caliber, one who spent many hours alone with his subject:
A comparison of Gandhi with those other titans of his day, Lenin and Hitler; Gandhi's fascination with the lowest of India's low, the Untouchables; his extraordinary hangups -- there is no better word -- with sex; his abysmal failure to understand the devastating scale of World War II and the plight of its major victims, the Jews of Europe; his naive insistence that nonviolence was the answer to all the world's evils: there is a failure to deal seriously with these critical matters, these weaknesses in his idol. The result is a flawed primer, not much different from grammar-school histories on George Washington which glossed over the warts and led generations of pupils to believe that the great leader was incapable of dishonesty, deceit and vanity.
Perhaps the least excusable weakness in Shirer's book is its loose and under-edited writing. As an example, after noting at least a half dozen times that Gandhi was 61 years old at the time Shirer was reporting on him and the struggle for Indian independence, the author writes that on his next birthday the Mahatma "would be sixty-two." And two paragraphs later, we're reminded that Gandhi's approaching birthday would be "his sixty-second."
Elsewhere, Shirer tells us that when Gandi journeyed "through France, Switzerland and Italy," he was greeted by "French, Swiss and Italians" and twice within two pages he tells us that the British "breathed a sigh of relief" over Gandhi's occasional lapses in his demands.
One is left with the sense that, regrettably, Shirer waited too long to recount his personal recollections of the Mahatma. His book seems to be lightly -- though no doubt lovingly -- tossed together from yellowed clippings and frayed notebooks. Gandhi's rough edges, the very features that made him human, have been rubbed smooth by the passage of too much time.