Living in a contemporary world and writing about its complex history is a little like operating a weapon of sorts. Whichever way you hold it, you’re aiming, and invariably not even the operator is excludable from this weapon’s range. The writer might have to do a sidestepping, seatswapping shuffle to maintain a readership; the final product must be imbued with enough flesh and blood to give it relevance and readability without losing the reader in proverbial lies, damn lies, and statistics; and the integrity of the writer might be at stake in the face of the ever-evolving truths to which contemporary history is heir.
Thomas C. Reeves is certainly an academic who, in confronting these challenges, delivers the goods. Twentieth Century America: A Brief History is not only brief, it’s concise and penned in a language clean of jargon or that level of detail that notoriously throws the typical undergrad or lay reader into conceptual alienation, informational overload, and total boredom.
At the outset Reeves reveals his intentions. It’s a book designed for the lay reader and college undergraduate. Broad structures are boldly painted, reflecting a range of different views of society palimpsestly close together, so that the total image is cohesive. So, while we see the advent of the 20th century being toasted by Americans with “inventions and technological advances at the core of industrialization,” we also see cities which have become “crowded, chaotic, noisy, filthy, ugly and corrupt.” By the century’s early years, optimism may have been in place regarding nascent American democracy, but “Many Americans were not only hostile to the newcomers, they sought to shut off the flow of immigrants altogether. Organized labor wanted to avoid job competition; racists wished to protect ‘Anglo-Saxon purity’; . . . many Americans disliked Jews and feared the growth of Roman Catholicism.”
Reeves acknowledges how history is constructed by those in the winning seats. He does this by presenting more than one side of the proverbial coin, and the complex views which comprised the controversies weathered over the past 100 years by America. He does not kowtow to popular viewpoints. Rather, his angle is as objective as a book of this nature can be. In the Preface, he comments, “Objectivity is an illusive but worthy goal for the historian.” This is possibly the greatest strength of this work.
In examining the underbody and workings of the century, looking at the ebb and flow of industry, economy, society, and politics, Reeves draws on opinions expressed and realities experienced from all over the social spectrum. The situations of women, minorities, and the poor in a burgeoning culture are often unglamorous. Reeves takes his reader through World Wars, economic depressions, and the development of world peace and democracy. While the American picture might have remained something of an intangible dream in terms of acquisition of wealth and power, at the century’s end, “millions around the globe . . . feared . . . secularism, . . . crime, . . . popular culture, . . . cynicism, and . . . growing disparity of wealth that were part of American life.” Similarly, each president is presented as an individual tainted by fallibility. From Theodore Roosevelt right through to Bill Clinton, each president’s humanity is placed alongside his civic merits, allowing the reader to appreciate policy development and popularity, and individual blunders and misgivings are not whitewashed.
Even though the powerful image of an eagle, national symbol of the United States, by prototypical Pop artist Andy Warhol forms part of the cover design, the text is broadly devoid of much of the spicy stuff in the visual arts that made popular culture in America as sexy an international forerunner. The Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists who dramatically shifted the nature and international influence of American popular culture and the museum establishment are referred to only in the context of their socio-political environs. This doesn’t hurt the narrative though, rather it makes it serve as an incentive for the reader to connect different expressions of popular culture to the broader socio-historical picture painted by Reeves. While literature, the visual and performing arts, international administrative and military policy, giant personalities in different spheres, and vignettes of lifestyle situations in different parts of the century are evocatively handled, on no level can this be considered a specialist text. It’s an introduction that not only grounds a reader’s preconceptions in the many-sidedness of policy making and event recording, but teases them out in terms of how varied the stories are seen and transmitted.
Divided into fifteen chronological chapters, with a preface and including recommended literature at the end of each chapter, it’s a rollercoaster ride. It’s designed to deal with the fifteen-week semester system of American colleges, and this is one of the determinants in restricting the recommended reading list, from a million impressive well-thumbed tomes to a few accessible, contemporary ones. This doesn’t detract from the academic sensibilities of the book but rather gives it relevance for its projected readership. By the same token, the accessibility of the work is not compromised for a reader who isn’t American. Historical constructs and perceived truths are explained in a manner that just suffices and is neither patronisingly simple nor overwhelmingly complex. Reeves does not repeat himself extensively, nor does he indulge in climbing onto soapboxes. His text runs smoothly, without the stop-start mechanisms of footnoted texts.
The prospect of covering as exciting a century as the last, briefly, is a daunting one. Not only is the century so close that we can hardly boast the perspective of being able to see it all, but it’s been such a big, fast-moving, and complex one, that the idea of a brief history that comprises but 300 pages seems almost disrespectful. Twentieth Century America contradicts all of these negative expectations, and it’s a pleasant read to boot.
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