Charting The Century

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Now 1998 is upon us, and it seems years closer to the millennium than did 1997. There’s no reason this should he the case—just as there’s no reason, strictly speaking, why the turn of the century should be celebrated in the year 2000. As Dr. Albert Shaw briskly explained to The Review of Reviews ’ readers in January 1900, the big event lay a year in the future: “A half-minute’s clear thinking is enough to remove all confusion. With December 31 we complete the year 1899—that is to say, we round out 99 of the 100 years that are necessary to complete a full century. We must give the nineteenth century the 365 days that belong to its hundredth and final year, before we begin the year 1 of the twentieth century.” Sound enough, but of course nobody listened; what is 1900 becoming 1901 compared with the enormous shift on our spiritual odometer that occurs when 1899 is replaced by 1900?

The nineteenth century subjected itself to increasingly close scrutiny as it waned. In Our Times , his great chronicle of the first twenty-five years of this century (or twenty-four, by Dr. Shaw’s reckoning), Mark Sullivan wrote, “There was a human disposition to sum things up, to say who had been the greatest men of the century |ust closed, what had been the greatest books, the greatest inventions, the greatest advances in science. Looking forward, there was a similar disposition to forecast and predict. This appealed to nearly everybody…”

And here it all is back again, at the end of a hundred-year span that has given people plenty to chew over. Because the twentieth century is the one that Henry Luce could, without sounding absurd, claim as America’s own, this magazine has long been offering the sort of big, summary articles that the close of the era is now demanding from everybody.

But of course American Heritage editors are no more immune than anyone else to the millennial pull; indeed, we’re grateful for it, because among their other effects these big anniversaries bring out the historian in people everywhere, giving them an appetite for evaluating their place in the constant flow of change that is history. In the months ahead we will, just as our predecessors in 1898 did, be making more frequent efforts to look back over the span of the past hundred years. Those pieces that we think are especially telling about events and trends of our time will be flagged “Charting the Century.” There are, for instance, two such in this issue. One is the interview in which Michael Elliott addresses a feeling shared by many Americans: that they and their country have lost ground since the comfortable years that followed World War II. Elliott puts that time (which, even before nostalgia’s softening haze settled around it, really was singular) into the larger context of the entire century and finds that the America we inhabit today is surprisingly like that of 1900, which is both good and bad. The other story offers a preview of John Lukacs’s remarkable literary effort—part novel, part essay, wholly unique—to reanimate the century’s most intimate textures by a year-by-year examination of its course.

Later on in the year we will introduce a column that would not have astonished Mark Sullivan. In it, various writers will select and defend their choices for Man of the Century, Woman of the Century, Invention of the Century… (some results from last century’s poll: Elihu Root chose as Achievement of the Century the Bessemer process for making steel; Russell Sage and Chauncey Depew thought it was the “application of electrical power”).

Fortunately, our franchise spares us that inevitably humiliating turn-of-century necessity, the definitive prediction. (1899: “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”) But of course, any sound historical article is predictive. All that is going to happen lies encoded in the coils of what has already happened. Studying the past may not offer glimpses of the future’s specific fixtures—the moving sidewalks and monorails that somehow never come about—but it can certainly show the alert student what that indefatigable futurist H. G. Wells called “the Shape of Things to Come.”

Richard F. Snow