The Short Version: In the 1910s, a constellation of young idealists thought that the world was headed towards the utopia they were envisioning. When World War One breaks out, they – and their still-young nation – must grapple with the cold realities of a world that might not be ready for them.
The Review: What happens when the world around you turns out to be quite other than what you’d thought it was going to be? When your ideals are not only challenged but downright trounced, when your passions are reduced to little more than embers? Do you keep up the fight or do you give in to the march of time?
These are questions that many of us have been asking ourselves over the course of the last eight or so months. The promise and the hopes of the Obama Administration have been dashed by the cruel realities of backwards ideologues – and while many people have taken up the fight, none of us were quite prepared for it. It can be tough to maintain such a fever pitch, especially in the face of a world that seems eager to reveal the next awful thing before we can even get our minds around the last one. So what can we do?
For one thing, we can look to history. Jeremy McCarter – who, full disclosure, I know well and have had the privilege of working for and with – casts his eye back one hundred years to consider the world of the 1910s, with some potentially surprising results: although the particulars are of course rather different, the overall struggles of that decade echo loudly in this one. Progressive and socialist thought were on the rise, women were taking up the fight for their rights, and capitalist geopolitics stood entrenched against both. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
McCarter picks five names – a constellation of particular stars, as he has called it – on which to focus his efforts: Alice Paul, Max Eastman, Randolph Bourne, Walter Lippmann, and Jack Reed. (You could argue that Woodrow Wilson is the sixth, fainter star in this particular grouping.) Then, with a conversational tone and a palpable excitement, he guides us through a decade of tumult, from roughly 1912 to 1922. He shows us the lives of these five, the way that they intersect (or don’t), and the way that the world was not only shaped by but around them in ways that it might well have taken a hundred years to realize.
This is a history book, but it doesn’t quite read like one. McCarter doesn’t go so far as to invent dialogues, but he – a former critic and a theatermaker – invests the proceedings with energy and motion. If you’re looking for an in-depth examination of any of these five characters, this is perhaps not the book: he delivers a scene and then leaps immediately to another, a movement that sometimes throws us halfway around the world before bringing us back again. Alice Paul is marching on Washington one moment and then we’re following one of the guys in their attempts to understand World War One from one of its various fronts, before then swinging to New York City and the scene in Greenwich Village. Clocking in at just 400 pages, the pace can at times feel breathless – but this is to the book’s benefit. McCarter makes the convincing case that the days must have felt exactly as fast and furious to those living in them as they do to a reader today. The world was changing, sometimes under their very feet, and it was all they could do to keep up.
McCarter’s conversational tone also helps make this book something more than another entry in the history section of your local library. His introduction and afterword, both written in haste before the book went to print, are the product of 2017. As he writes the opening, a million people were marching in Washington for the Women’s March – and as he writes his conclusion, they’re rushing to airports to protest the travel ban. You’d be forgiven if both of those moments seem like ancient history now, but McCarter’s canny ability to see the past in the present and the present in the past – and to allow the occasional interjection of delight and joy into his work – makes the book feel immediate in a way that history all too often doesn’t. Perhaps he intended it – or perhaps he is a happy victim of fate, like his subjects. Either way, it results in a book that is a joy to read and one that I hope makes its way into the hands of US History and AP Government teachers everywhere. There’s much to be learned from our past, especially as some of those same fights return today. We need more writers like McCarter, who can not only make that history come alive but also make the reader understand why it still matters.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A charming, breezy, and incredibly timely exploration of five young idealists in the lead-up to and entirety of World War One – a time when the world was changing, progress seemed inevitable, and humanity’s overwhelming idiocy screwed it all up in the end. McCarter delivers history with an easy, modern tone and draws parallels to the present without beating the reader over the head. A triumph of history, of politics, and of American idealism.