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Our Times... And Mine
A newsman returns to a classic work by a famous predecessor and finds that Mark Sullivan’s vanished America has something to tell us
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
Our Times into a new, one-volume edition. That landmark of popular history is a genuine, certified classic, and usually about the closest any working reporter gets to a classic is a Coke at the end of a long day.I confess, I am not the likeliest candidate to have condensed Mark Sullivan’s
Originally in six volumes, Our Times covers the years from 1900 to 1925, when, as Sullivan saw it, the United States stepped onto the world stage, triumphed in the Great War, and then retreated into the materialism and self-absorption of the Roaring Twenties. At six thousand pages Our Times is longer than the sum of all the books I read in all my American history courses at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Texas, where I was trained as a reporter, not as a historian.
Until recently I’d never read a word of Our Times. I had heard of Mark Sullivan, vaguely, perhaps in college, perhaps even earlier from my parents, who were voracious readers.
Mark Sullivan was one of the most widely respected journalists of his day. One of the original muckrakers, he became America’s leading political reporter and columnist in newspapers and magazines for nearly half a century. A committed Republican, he had unrivaled access to the leaders of his party, including Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Harding, and contacts like these made him the ideal chronicler of his age.
He used documentary evidence like schoolbooks, popular music, newspaper cartoons, even advertising. Today we may consider such references standard, but only because Mark Sullivan paved the way.
Even so, it took considerable audacity to write Our Times. Sullivan wrote for a popular audience that wasn’t presumed interested in reading history. He wasn’t a trained historian either and consulted documentary evidence the likes of which academics never contemplated: schoolbooks, popular music, newspaper cartoons, even advertising. Today we may consider such references standard, but only because Mark Sullivan paved the way.
The first volume appeared in 1926, the last in 1935. Every one was a big seller, and Sullivan was regularly considered a shoo-in for a Pulitzer Prize. It is fair to say that no series of nonfiction books, all on the same general subject by the same author over such a compact space of writing time, ever captured the country so completely sold so well, was so widely read and acclaimed, and had such a lasting, growing reputation for excellence as Mark Sullivan’s Our Times.
Beyond “great men and great events,” Sullivan concentrated on daily life. He reported on the songs of the day, the books, what ordinary people liked and disliked; he spotted fashion and cultural trends and was on the lookout constantly for indications of change in daily life. His essay on dog ownership at the turn of the century is still cited as an indication of both his eye for the telling detail and his ability to turn established historical writing practice on its head.
As I began to study Sullivan and read Our Times, my interest and excitement grew. Here was perhaps the greatest combination reporter and writer America has produced, yet by the last quarter of this century he was practically unknown to the audience he had most sought, the great American public he loved and admired.
Part of the problem, obviously, was that Our Times filled six thick volumes. From all these was born the idea of the present edition: Take it down to one volume and present the marvel of Sullivan’s work to new generations of Americans. I did not rewrite Our Times. To rewrite Mark Sullivan would be to tamper with the strength and clarity of his language, and to do that would have interfered with the lessons he has to teach.
Those lessons are neither easily dismissed nor irreproachable. To say Sullivan’s books are the best—which I do—is far from claiming they are perfect. Certainly, hindsight makes it easier to see that while Sullivan displayed remarkable aptitude for identifying consensus (most of his interpretations of even the most recent events would find their match in most schoolbooks in history classrooms for a couple of generations), he sometimes overlooked what now seems essential.