Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: 1919: THE YEAR OUR WORLD BEGAN by William Klingaman (Harper Collins, 1987)

Until author Klingaman tips his partisan hand about two-thirds of the way through, this is a highly readable and generally fair-minded survey of the events of one of the most momentous years in human history.  It's certainly not a pleasant journey.  After slogging through nearly 700 pages detailing the massacres, rebellions, and ethnic conflicts of war-torn Europe and the sad effects of race riots and "Red Scares" in the U.S., juxtaposed against the half-idealistic, half-cynical clown's pageant that was the Paris Peace Talks leading up to the Treaty of Versailles, the average reader is likely to feel a little like Jess Willard did after being massacred by Jack Dempsey in the July 4, 1919 heavyweight title fight at Toledo, OH.  Believe it or not, the story of this notorious bout is actually among the lighter moments of the relentlessly downbeat narrative.  

For such a comprehensive survey, there are a surprisingly large number of narrative lacunae in this tale.  Klingaman spends a good deal of time describing the "First Red Scare" in America but, for some reason, doesn't even mention the famed imprisonment of the Socialist leader Eugene Debs, who wasn't released from jail until well after Woodrow Wilson had left office.  This omission is particularly strange in that Klingaman provides us with a wealth of detail concerning the abortive Bolshevik rebellions in Germany and Hungary, to say nothing of the early struggles of the Soviet Union against the "White Russian" forces (and, lest we forget, a small contingent of Allied soldiers who were dumped into Russia with a rather vague charge to fight the Bolsheviks, and whose travails all too often go unmentioned in standard histories of this period).  If the omission of Debs' plight was a simple oversight, then it was a mystifying one.  Less defensible is Klingaman's decision to focus virtually all of the attention in the U.S. political battle over the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles on Wilson's strenuous -- and, in the end, near-fatal -- efforts to overcome Senatorial opposition with his famous whistle-stop tour of the American West.  Wilson's fate is obviously a more dramatic story than a dry debate in the halls of Congress could ever be, but Klingaman gives almost literally NO attention to the reasons for the opposition, apart from the usual boilerplate about isolationism.  It's difficult to attribute this to anything other than ideological bias.

Klingaman does leaven his narrative with occasional digressions into the fashions, literature, and cinema of the day.  Even many of these asides have their grim aspects.  Take sports, for example: aside from the Willard-Dempsey bout, the Black Sox Scandal gets plenty of space, and even the description of Babe Ruth's final season with the Boston Red Sox is likely to turn the stomachs of Sox fans.  The world of silent movies, meanwhile, is primarily represented through a retelling of the plot of the infamous horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariIt's unfortunate that 1919's introduction of the world's longest-lived animated cartoon character couldn't have at least been mentioned, if for no other reason than to soften the mood.

If you like sweeping "life and times"-style histories in the grand tradition of Mark Sullivan's OUR TIMES or William Manchester's THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, then you'll probably enjoy "1919"... that is, if "enjoy" is the proper verb to use to describe one's relationship with such a depressing catalogue of human injustice, crime, folly, and suffering.

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