The American Century

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Evans likes to refer to The American Century as “history for browsers.” There are searching essays at the start of each chapter, but most of the book consists of tiropage spreads concerning particular people or events.

These are driven by pictures culled by Gail Buckland, the book’s photographic historian, from archives and collections around the United States. Buckland, an associate professor at New York City’s Cooper Union, has been the curator of many photographic exhibitions, including the New-York Historical Society’s “Shanties to Skyscrapers” and the Statue of Liberty’s centennial, “Visions of Liberty.” The author of eight books of photography and history, including Travelers in Ancient Lands, Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography , and, with Cecil Beaton, The Magic Image, Buckland has produced hundreds of images that have rarely, if ever, been published before. A selection accompanies this interview.

Harold Evans has dreamed of writing a book about American history since 1956, when he first visited the United States on a Harkness Commonwealth Fund fellowship designed to let European journalists see the real America.

“I looked for it in forty states,” he writes. “I bought an old Plymouth, and made my bed in the back of it, and I crossed the country coast-to-coast and north-to-south. In Mississippi and North Carolina I interviewed both the leaders of the new civil rights movement and the heads of the racist White Citizens Councils. In Fort Sill, Oklahoma, I spent an afternoon with the last surviving Apache to have ridden with Geronimo. I worked for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign but found myself cheering when I went to a small airport and saw Ike grin and wave to the crowd from the steps of his plane.”

 
 

Evans returned to the United Kingdom and a distinguished career in journalism. He served for fourteen years as the crusading editor of the London Sunday Times , was editor of the daily London Times , and wrote eight books, including Good Times, Bad Times , before moving across the Atlantic in 1984. On coming back to this side of the ocean, he founded Condé Nast Traveler magazine and worked for seven years as president and publisher of Random House. He has edited the works of Colin Powell, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Paul Nitze, and Zbigniew Brzezinski and has never surrendered the idea of writing his own history of the American Republic.

 
 
 

The result, after twelve years of painstaking research, is The American Century , to be published by Alfred A. Knopf this fall. The book traces what is in fact the second American century, from the centennial of the Constitution, in 1889, to its bicentennial—which happened to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. It covers an astonishingly crowded hour of American life, a heroic epoch in which the United States rose to global primacy and confronted the gravest dilemmas of its own democracy. Modeled after such works as Roger Butterfield’s The American Past and Stefan Lorant’s The Glorious Burden, The American Century contains more than nine hundred photographs, political cartoons, and drawings, but unlike the other works it also has a serious historical text of more than three hundred thousand words.

“My experiences in 1956 gave me an enduring fascination with the idea of America and its unceasing struggle to achieve its ideals,” Evans writes. It’s a fascination that continues, and he has himself become an American citizen. He is currently vice-chairman and editor of the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News & World Report , and Fast Company , and he resides in New York City with his children, George and Isabel, and his wife, Tina Brown, who recently resigned the editorship of The New Yorker to start her own media company with Miramax.

“The greatest accomplishment was simply holding the country together during a time of absolutely seismic change.”
 

Why is this the American Century?

It is the second hundred years of America as a going concern, and you could also say it has been the American Century in terms of setting the style of the world in everything from jeans to movies to market capitalism. But it is really the American Century by the power of an idea—the idea of freedom. At the beginning of the century the number of free democratic nations in the world was very limited. Now, at the end of the century, democracy is ascendant around the globe, and America has played the major part in making that happen. It has been the exemplar of freedom and—particularly in the second half of the century—has actively led the struggles against the evil, coercive regimes of Nazism and Communism. For all its faults the United States has sustained Western civilization by acts of courage, generosity, and vision unparalleled in the history of man.