- Historic Sites
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
There’s barely a word on Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy, and Sullivan is equally silent on Woodrow Wilson’s domestic policy (as a staunch Republican he couldn’t bring himself to admit a Democrat might be a progressive). There’s no firsthand reporting on World War I. Sullivan isn’t ready to understand the changes in the lives of American women, who at the beginning of this period couldn’t vote, smoke, wear short hair or skirts, or work outside the home except in a few, mostly menial, jobs. Worse, Sullivan shows a woefully weak understanding of the importance of race relations in America throughout its history. He never deals with the sorry influence of the Ku Klux Klan as it developed in his times or with the culture that Mark Twain called “The United States of Lyncherdom.”
Because Sullivan is adept at capturing consensus, the limitations of Our Times are nothing if not instructive. Still, Sullivan’s enthusiasm propels his chronicle past most objections. Sullivan adores America; he revels in the events and prizes the leaders and the colorful characters who people his country. The reader can almost picture Sullivan chuckling to himself as he resuscitates old jokes and beloved eccentrics of the era. He brims over with prices, statistics, anecdotes, and (a great novelty in history-book publishing at the time) pictures. Ultimately the impact of Sullivan’s many tittles and jots is exhilarating; he renders a dazzling pointillist portrait of America.
Sullivan shows us the workshop in which Our Own Times were designed. During Our Times Theodore Roosevelt invented the modern Presidency, Franklin Roosevelt entered politics, and John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were born. During Our Times , the Wright brothers invented the airplane, Hollywood became something other than a real estate development, and Marconi’s radio began to cast broadly the first strands of its network among the peoples of the global village. Those are just a few of the constantly accelerating political, technological, and cultural changes of that era.
In our own times, America has been the pre-eminent world player for most of a century, and in the aftermath of the Cold War, it is reassessing its role. There is particular value just now in examining events and opinions at the moment when the United States confidently entered the world arena —and then pulled back.
In Sullivan’s Times , Americans didn’t capitalize on their strength and influence after the Great War. Why did we squander so many of the opportunities that were handed over by war-fatigued Europe?
Mark Sullivan raised this question but couldn’t answer it. He found the isolationism and consumerism of the Roaring Twenties to be bewildering and even shameful. The America that he had dreamed of, the America that Teddy Roosevelt had promised, was not a nation that would consider retreating in victory. Yet that, in Sullivan’s point of view, is exactly what happened. When Sullivan wrote, he knew of course that the twenties were only the prelude to the Great Depression; he didn’t and couldn’t know that the Great War would one day be known as World War I.
The United States still flirts with isolationism and xenophobia, as it has always done. Geography and a good part of our heritage permit such attitudes. At its heart this country does not believe in self-absorption or fear and will always move outward, with the best of intentions, even into space. But the tendency to pull back, to look away from the rest of the world, has existed at least since George Washington warned against the dangers of foreign alliances, and it endures today. Mark Sullivan thought that tendency was a mistake.
Yet what one takes away from this book is an image of the United States in irresistible upswing, bursting with confidence, pride, and optimism, when no problem seemed a match for American know-how and destiny beckoned this nation to glory. In its rich detail Mark Sullivan’s personal optimism persists and pervades in spite of everything.
It is almost impossible to imagine any history today being written with such a buoyant spirit or with such goodwill toward its subjects. A century after the beginning of this history and a half-century after its author’s death, Our Own Times are not noted for their optimism. Historians and sociologists tell us that some melancholy is natural at the turn of any century. If that’s so, we shouldn’t be surprised that in Our Own Times surveys and studies show Americans prey to every kind of pessimism, despair, and, perhaps above all, cynicism. The only surprise in all this may be the surprise registered by newspaper and broadcast editorial writers, forever shaking their heads in wonder at the “sudden” enormousness of public cynicism.
And don’t we have cause to be cynical? In recent years America has suffered many blows to public morale, to the Constitution itself. Cynicism has become chic today; pessimism, a mark of intelligence. To look on the dark side is to be “realistic.” Perhaps it was ever thus. But that is not the kind of country Mark Sullivan describes in Our Times.