Historical Perspective(s): Gunlord’s Quickshot Review of William L. Shirer’s Twentieth Century Journey: The Start

As you’ll recall, my friends, last week I wanted to do a full review of William Shirer’s Twentieth Century Journey: The Start, 1904-1930. Alas, I got too distracted by XCOM: Enemy Within and only had time to share a handful of musings inspired by Shirer’s introduction. Well, today I’m here to offer you a full review! As full as my ‘quickshot’ reviews get, anyways XD

To put in bluntly, this book is more than worth reading. It’s an engrossing story of one man’s intellectual and professional growth and maturity, but it’s also quite an engaging overview of early 20th century American history. While it would be too long to use as a textbook, readers expecting an autobiography will also come away with a better grasp of concepts like imperialism, American populism, and how inventions such as radio and the automobile altered American culture and society. You’ll also be introduced to a veritable who’s-who of the biggest names of Western culture during the 1920s as Shirer rubbed elbows with the most famous writers and artists in both Europe and America: He managed to associate with Paul Robeson, Gertrude Stein, Henry Luce (founder of Time) and several others by the time the first volume of his life closes. His style was adequate; while I wasn’t as taken with this book’s writing as I was with Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’s, it still does a good job of clearly conveying Shirer’s ideas, along with his genial and touchingly humane personality.

After the introduction, the first chapter, or book, does not begin with Shirer’s birth but rather his journey to college as a young man in 1925. This organization may seem strange at first thought, but since Shirer’s time in Europe defined who he was and what he would be known for, his first trip away from the lands of his birth would be the most significant of his life, and acquainting readers with that time period would allow them to see how Shirer’s childhood and youth led him to it when they read about it in the next book. He also provided some excellent background on the politics and biggest stories of the 1920s, describing the Scopes trial, the presidencies of Coolidge and Harding (focusing particularly on the pro-business culture of the United States in those days, along with Prohibition and the organized crime it spawned; Shirer discussed “Scarface” and the corruption of Chicago’s government in some depth) and the looming economic catastrophe, noting that he’d began to read in the newspapers of France’s difficulties with their WWI loans. (1) The second half of the chapter then depicts his trip to Paris and his first impressions of the great city and France in general. Of course, interspersed through all this is an account of Shirer’s own life and growth, and he offered some particularly touching, poignant musings on the nature of love and loss. Before he set off for Europe, he had a girlfriend in college, and she feared their relationship would not survive their absence. Shirer admitted “[s]he was, of course, I see now a half century later, wiser than I and more foresighted. She knew me better than I knew myself. I never saw her again.”

manly tears--kenshiro

This displays, I think, some of the strengths of Shirer’s character: His humility, his capacity for introspection, and not just his love of women but his ability to look at the world with perspective rather than placing himself as a perpetually oppressed underdog or some sort of “Atlas” on whom all else rests. It is something we see throughout the rest of the next two books in his autobiography, and it makes him an endearing character. It certainly encouraged me to continue to read about his life!

Book two brings us to the chronological start of Shirer’s story: His birth in Chicago on February 23, 1904. Yet again, this chapter offers an excellent glimpse of city life in the beginning of the 20th century. Shirer described living in a town filled with horses, told stories about filling a box with ice to store food (as there were no refrigerators in those days), and described one of his first memories being the installation of a telephone in his house. He also provided some historical perspective on the world he was born into, discussing the Spanish-American War and his country’s deepening love affair with imperialism, the widening gulf between rich and poor which had been exacerbated by the depression of 1894, along with an overview of the most important literary currents emanating from Chicago: The realism of Dreiser’s novels (most notably Sister Carrie), the ruthlessness of business portrayed in Frank Norris’, and the poetry of Carl Sandburg. (2) Once again, Shirer continued to discuss his own life and development, and continued to show us his affectionate and humane nature. His ruminations on his father’s death in 1913 were genuinely touching, as was his appraisal of what the man left him:

“What were my father’s influences on me, assuming that nothing is inherited? Perhaps the greatest were the sense of honesty, integrity, modesty, tolerance, and the love of music, learning, literature, and life.” (p. 123)

Even more poignant, IMO, is Shirer’s assessment of how the world around him was changing as his father died. This brilliant passage deserves to be quoted at length:

“A world itself died with my father in 1913, or shortly thereafter, for the next year there came the Great War, which left the world my father had known in shambles. For two generations man in the Western world had lived in peace.  Human beings had faith in themselves, in God, in the future; they had a sense of security. They believed that progress was the eternal law of life and that despite a few flaws in society the human race was moving inexorably along a splendid road that led toward a promised land where everyone would be free, happy, and even well-off.  Science, technology, invention, promised a millennium. Machines would liberate human beings from drudgery…Doubts were few, and later on, in our own age of doubt, Osbert Sitwell, the poet, could look back on what he remembered as the golden age before 1914…

“My father had lived in that kind of a time. It had not known world wars, cold wars, revolutions, genocide, Fascism, Communism, totalitarian dictators, and nuclear bombs.” (pp. 124-126)

It is under this cloud that Book 3 begins. His father’s death forced the young Shirer and his family to move with his mother’s parents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Shirer’s descriptions of rural Midwestern life are as illuminating and entertaining as his look at the world of Chicago. He discussed its history, tying it into both its role during the Civil War and how his grandparents (German-descended on his father’s side, Welsh and Scot on his mother’s) came to the area. Since World War I was going on, Shirer took the opportunity to offer an amusing but thought-provoking vignette about his childhood foibles: He described wanting badly to “fight for democracy” when the U.S joined the war in 1917, lost a friendship with another boy who wanted the Germans to win, and was bitterly disappointed when the war ended before he could join up. He explicitly contrasted this youthful naiveté with his more mature view on the horrors of war. World War I wasn’t the only event which helped him mature, of course—Shirer also described the social importance and ubiquity of “Chautauqua tents,” a sort of summer school bringing education, entertainment, and culture all across America which played a prominent role in his young life. Not many people know of this phenomenon despite its importance and great visibility in the early part of the twentieth century (I didn’t, at least), and Shirer gave us an excellent overview of the program. (3) Shirer went on to discuss his life through high school and college, noting his increasing religious skepticism (though he did give credit to a small Christian commune in Amana, Iowa for actually making Communism work on pages 190-198) before coming back to where his memoirs started: His trip to Paris in 1925, where he worked on the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.

Book Four is Shirer’s recollections of his life during his first two years in France, from 1925-1927, aptly titled “Growing up in Paris.” He certainly did do a lot of growing up there, by his own admission. Paris was worldly and free, he told us, so different from his provincial, repressed (thanks to Prohibition) homeland. Though he would have to work hard to become fluent in French, he did succeed in falling passionately in love with a woman he calls Yvonne—again, by his own admission, it was his first great love affair, and his descriptions of their affair affected this reader, at least, with their honesty, the evident affection Shirer still held for the woman, and the bittersweet nature of their final parting, which still left Shirer with many happy memories. Indeed, he called this period the happiest of his life, and it’s easy to see why. Aside from his time with Yvonne, he got to talk to many American expats living in Paris, such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and in particular Gertrude Stein; his reminisces of their discussions are nothing short of electrifying. He also attended lectures by H.G. Wells, author of famous sci-fi like War of the Worlds. Wells praised dictatorships and inequality in those lectures, and Shirer’s criticism of them (despite his respect for Wells as an author) is perceptive and stinging. (4) This was also a time when Shirer was beginning to get interested in history, and once again, provided another excellent passage that deserves to be quoted at length:

“History now seemed more interesting to me, especially contemporary history. I was beginning to see, of course, that aside from the aesthetic satisfaction one got from novels, one also absorbed from them a good deal of history, of the feel of certain times in the life of a country or a civilization…Perhaps in the end, when you were mature enough, you could better tell of the times you had lived through a novel than in a straight history. It was a goal I never lost sight of, until much later I would try for it—and fail.”

Page 279.

Aside from an honest assessment of his own capabilities, this is also an introduction to history many people might sympathize with, if not share. Though, as I’ve mentioned before, my love of history came from reading Shirer’s historical work, I can certainly see how many others would jump into the subject through great historical novels.

After this comes Book Five, which begins from Shirer’s promotion to foreign correspondent at the Chicago Tribune in 1927. This book is notable mainly for the many interesting and occasionally quite funny stories Shirer told from his days on this beat, such as accepting a cable from an old woman to President Abraham Lincoln, his coverage of the Olympic Games, and his criticism of the British press. My favorite aspect of this chapter was his portrait of Charles Lindbergh, which struck me as very fair and balanced. On the one hand, Shirer praised his legitimate accomplishments, both in terms of flight as well as later on, when Lindbergh became an enthusiastic conservationist. However, Shirer also criticized the aviator’s flirting with Nazism and his support of Fascism, thus offering a view of one of the era’s most fascinating personalities that is neither too glowing nor too scathing.(5)

The final book of Volume I is “Roving Correspondent, 1928-1930.” In 1928, Shirer began his travels of the world. He didn’t describe his time in India and his friendship with Gandhi (that’ll come in Volume II), but he offered plenty of compelling insights on the histories of Ireland, Austria, and Italy as he traveled through them. Again, one couldn’t use this as a history text proper, but thumbing through these pages will provide the reader with a serviceable grasp of European history during the early 20th century. Shirer did a particularly thorough job of laying out the economic crises leading up to the worldwide Great Depression along with his own thoughts on what caused it. He didn’t pay much attention to race, which (given my own interests) disappointed me a *teensy* bit, but I can’t really blame him since he was concentrating more on European politics and economics. However, he did meet the famous black artist Paul Robeson and had a couple of interesting paragraphs on pages 466-467 discussing how Robeson’s attitudes towards Communism were influenced by America’s treatment of his race, and whether or not he eventually became disillusioned with the Soviet Union. (6)

(As an aside, there’s a cute passage on pages 454-55 describing the German artist Christa Winsloe and her same-sex relationship with a girl named Dorothy. I was surprised to see this, given the slight but amusing homophobia Shirer displayed in Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Perhaps he had mellowed out in regards to lesbians, at least, by the time he began writing his autobiography.)

Despite all my praise of this book, Twentieth Century Journey: The Start does have a few marks against it. It is not uniformly interesting; there were a few stories I thought were somewhat boring and parts where it dragged a little bit. Much more importantly, though, while Shirer did an admirable job of admitting his flaws and foibles, I think a few more of his flaws shine through the text than he may have intended. Shirer was obviously a left-leaning man, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He made no secret of it and criticized the excesses of capitalism and praised the accomplishments of socialists and communists many times, though he was thankfully no apologist for the crimes of the Soviet Union (he had very harsh words for Stalin, pp. 444, 463). However, he often came across as pretentious, smugly convinced of his superiority over his common American brethren and unsympathetic to beliefs they may have had legitimate reasons for holding. His dismissal of Coolidge and Harding as “mediocre” and too beholden to big business was tolerable, but lines like this:

“They [authors like Mencken and Dreiser] had rubbed in what we knew all too well from our young lives: The cultural poverty of the Midwest small town; the tyrannical pressures to conform to a narrow, conservative puritan norm; the hollowness of the small-town booster Babbitt businessman; the worship of business and profits and financial success by our sanctimonious and church Christians.” (p. 17)

Make one think he could have used a bit of extra humility. It is both fine and in many ways advisable to criticize the culture from which one sprang, but an inability to see anything good about it strikes me as no less myopic than an inability to see anything bad about it. It indicates a blindness and a self-satisfied arrogance which intellectuals should try to avoid: The historical roots, possible benefits, and legitimate reasons your countrymen may have had for clinging to such beliefs may elude you if you just dismiss them out of hand.

There are also a few times where Shirer indulged in some rather tasteless prejudice, such as in this assessment of London:

“The people in the streets—the British race, as Winston Churchill liked to put it—were, if one could make an initial whopping generalization, not very attractive to look at, the facial features slapped haphazardly, the complexions as pale as paste, the teeth irregular…” (pp. 51-52)

I’ll admit I found this quite amusing, simply because I’d often deploy similar stereotypes (of the British, and other nationalities for that matter) for humor and offense back when I was a teenage troll. Still, it’s more unseemly for an intellectual like Shirer to indulge in that sort of thing than some random Internet rapscallion like me. Still, he acknowledges it was just a first impression, so I’d say he grew out of that silliness, like I did. Yet another reason to credit him for his growth, I suppose.

Indeed, given how the themes of self-improvement and introspection are so prevalent throughout this narrative, I can forgive it (and Shirer) for the above flaws very easily. The few times he indulged in smugness or silly prejudice were outweighed many times over by his demonstrations of wisdom leavened by experience as he examined the life he had lived. His assessment of his college girlfriend quoted at the beginning of this review was one example of his demonstrated maturity, but there are many more. Whether it was poking some self-deprecating fun at his youthful romantic missteps in Paris or admitting how radically the “nightmare” years to come would change his perspective, Shirer always emphasized the importance of thinking critically about one’s beliefs and actions and accepting being wrong with grace. I assume he’ll continue preaching these lessons in the next volume of his autobiography (which I’ll review next week), but it’s enough for me to recommend this first one most enthusiastically.

One final note. As I discussed in my quickshot review of Rise and Fall, I wished Shirer could have lived to see our modern age. Reading Twentieth Century Journey reinforced that conviction, though for somewhat different reasons this time. So many of the issues of the early twentieth century Shirer brought up seem to still be present in the early twenty-first. His descriptions of the onset of the Great Depression would apply as well to our own “Great Recession” with a few minor changes, and his condemnations of the rapacious “plutocrats” and widening economic inequality might seem well-suited to a member of Occupy Wall Street. While history may not always repeat, it often rhymes. If you want proof of that aphorism, you have yet another reason to read this autobiography.

Edition cited:

Shirer, William L. 20th Century Journey, The Start: 1904-1930. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1976.

End notes:

1: Pp. 18-30, 31, 36-37, 44, 50-62.

2: Pp. 62-80, 100-120.

3: Pp. 130-150, 160-170.

4: Pp. 217-250, 269, 230-231, 245-250, 292.

5: Pp. 350-360, 339-349, 370-380.

6: Pp. 473-483, 384-400, 466-67, 454-55.


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