May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
A newsman returns to a classic work by a famous predecessor and finds that Mark Sullivan’s vanished America has something to tell us
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mark Sullivan tells of a nation consumed by optimism. He sees pride in our shared past and no doubts in the wonders of our anticipated future. The very nature of this history—one that sets daily life and the “average American” alongside Presidents and captains of industry—is quintessentially American and may even be a leap of faith in the grandest tradition of the American experiment, whose inventors dared trust that “We, the People” would indeed be wise and strong enough to lead the new nation.
This attitude extends beyond the “can-do spirit” we heard praised by our grandparents; it exceeds the nationalistic fervor that informed the war with Spain. It is nearer to the bravado shown by the kind of legendary American who bursts into London or Paris proudly declaring himself the equal of, if not better than, the crowned heads of Europe.
Sullivan was less boisterous in his optimism but nonetheless remarkable. He could look on the leaders of the U.S. government, most of whom he knew personally, yet summon what appears to be boundless admiration, especially for Theodore Roosevelt. Sullivan is capable of skepticism—no reporter can have been a muckraker, as he was, without a healthy dose of that—but he is never cynical.
Sullivan’s optimism remains resilient even when confronted by the disappointments that characterize the second half of his history: the decline of the Progressive movement, the retreat of the United States from the world arena, and the death of Roosevelt himself. Certainly the Great Depression is a mess, Sullivan might say, but it’s no match for American energy and spirit (and it probably could have been avoided if we’d stayed more true to our duty—or elected leaders more like Teddy).
Roosevelt looms like a colossus over Our Times . He dominates the first half of the history; his absence dominates its second half. And it is his writing about Roosevelt that best illustrates the generosity and guilelessness of Sullivan’s optimism.
Sullivan identifies, analyzes, and praises Roosevelt’s use of “balanced sentences,” the way TR seldom addressed one view without allowing for its opposite. Today’s reporters might well describe that as waffling, not balance, a sign of weakness, not of comprehension (even though many reporters, especially those for broadcast networks, are often required to employ exactly the same kind of balanced sentences). Roosevelt, Sullivan observes, can’t resist a challenge; throw down the gauntlet, and he will pick it up. Today we might call that dangerous, hotheaded, or at the least thin-skinned. Yet again and again Sullivan succeeds in demonstrating that the qualities Roosevelt brought to public office—intelligence wedded to emotion, seriousness of thought coupled with swiftness of action—were exactly those that served him and the country well.
The reader of Our Own Times must, however, question whether Roosevelt could have succeeded if his constituents, Sullivan among them, had not also been endowed with certain qualities amenable to his own, including that willingness to appreciate and admire the best intentions and best efforts of a public figure. Did Teddy Roosevelt have “spin doctors” who told Sullivan just how wonderful the President was, or did Sullivan arrive independently at that conclusion? How much does hindsight, ours as well as Sullivan’s, improve Roosevelt’s appearance? And how much would we benefit from (or be betrayed by) adapting Sullivan’s attitudes toward our own leaders?
After reading Our Times , we might wonder why Mount Rushmore contains portraits of any President but TR. Even without Sullivan’s help he has become a beloved character in our national folklore—the teddy bear and the grin saw to that—yet, much as we may love him in retrospect, how would we have felt listening to his Bull Moose campaign song, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”? In Our Own Times politicians promise to force their religious or cultural beliefs (or lack of same) on the rest of the country. Would Sullivan’s old-fashioned optimism protect us sufficiently from politicians who aren’t as nice as Teddy?
I am often struck by how little we recall the way that same optimism did once protect us—at the very time Our Times was written. It is easy, too easy, to forget how close the United States got during the Great Depression to domination by the forces of fascism and communism, forces that came not from any foreign threat but from within our own borders. Economic hardship brought desperation and a desire for quick, easy solutions; fascism and communism seemed like such solutions. Charismatic leaders offered well-turned speeches, preyed upon fears and hatred, and offered salvation at the low cost of our liberty. Liberty always seems least valuable when it hasn’t been lost.
My parents were exactly the kind of people the demagogues sought to sway. They enjoyed some respect in their community, but not because they were wealthy or extensively educated; they worked with their backs and their hands. The Communists would have been quick to call them “working-class Americans,” but my parents would have been just as quick to deny that America had a class system.
In the main, my parents and Americans just like them resisted the demagogues and the seductive charms of authoritarian rule; they couldn’t believe things had gotten so bad that they would actually need to abandon democracy. They remained true to their own principles, and they survived. Only a fundamental confidence in this country’s institutions, and optimism for their future, could have seen them through the Great Depression.
Perhaps it was easier for my parents’ generation to retain that optimistic spirit, since they were closer to the golden age of Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Sullivan, and closer, too, to the eras of Washington and Jefferson and of Lincoln. The lessons of history were still fresh to them, what we call the good old days were a living memory, and the disappointments of today had not been visited upon them. In more complicated times some would say that optimism is no longer feasible, and may even be harmful.
Some would point back to the familiar list of modern disillusionments: Vietnam, Watergate, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Iranian arms scandal. I reported every one of those disillusionments. As the White House correspondent for CBS News during the Nixon administration, I missed several important early leads and exclusive stories because I was reluctant to believe that this country’s highest officials could be guilty of such widespread criminal activity. I had been brought up with an abiding faith in my country’s leaders and a tremendous respect for the Presidency. Only when brought face-to-face with extensive irrefutable documentary evidence did I come to accept the repellent truth. Doubtless thinking of such incidents, in which the faith of the citizenry is abused by the leadership, the cynics today insist that Americans cannot afford optimism, even if we could regain it.
But I disagree. We cannot afford to do without optimism. We have been sorely disappointed, but optimism has, if not softened the blows, at least shown us the light at the end of the tunnel. My own faith in this country’s system of government was confirmed at the time of the Watergate scandals, the very time when it might have taken its worst bruising. Although one President resigned in disgrace, another stepped in peacefully, lawfully, hopefully. It was not only our legal Constitution but also our spiritual constitution that carried the day—exactly as all our antecedent optimists hoped they would.
Our lives are surley more complicated than the© lives of Our Times . We haven’t the luxury of time that our ancestors, our parents, or even our former selves once did. A proliferation of communications media distributes information, factual or not, more widely than our forebears would have dreamed possible. We have more information, of more kinds, through more means than ever before. And it is no longer possible even for latter-day Mark Sullivans to pretend that ours is a nation entirely composed of white males. We cannot help seeing a rainbow of faces, hearing a chorus of voices, when we consider our America today. That diversity provides energy and strength, but it can also make more difficult the teaching of valuable lessons. The prescriptions of the Founding Fathers may have saved our skins during the Watergate crisis, but those men two hundred years ago were white slaveholders who denied their wives and daughters the right to vote and whose sons would oppress the native population across the continent. Knowing all these things, we find it more difficult to hold up as paradigms the people, or even the words and feelings, that built this country.
Admitting that optimism is valuable, how can we encourage it? How can we teach it to our children when our history tells of disillusionment and schism, of demoralizing events and shaming truths? A school district in Florida recently came up with a suggestion: Teachers would be required to tell students that the American culture is superior to all others. The proof of this superiority, they said, was that America had outlasted all other cultures, meaning presumably the Soviet Union. (The ancient Egyptians, whose culture lasted thousands of years, would surely be amused by the idea of a two-century-old culture’s having “lasted.”)
We were told that the Florida curriculum was born of a sincere concern: How can young Americans be expected to defend their country in time of war, for example? (However, some critics said the Floridians’ greater fear was of attack not by foreign armies but by immigrants and nonwhites from within our own borders.) How can young Americans stick to our institutions in time of economic instability or perform any of the other deeds’of heroic belief that our predecessors were so often called upon for? Schoolchildren today learn so many horror stories of oppression by the dominant cultures in American history; so many tales of scandal are repeated, so many heroes tarnished in the classroom. Never mind that it’s all more or less true. Today there’s less of the kind of values education we find in the old McGuffey Readers , and you won’t see slave-owning, false-tooth-wearing George Washington held up for the kind of adulation he once commanded. And don’t forget that George never cut down that cherry tree. Can we be certain that our children will have the faith and strength our grandparents had when they turned down fascism and communism at the height of the Great Depression?
The solution, I believe, is shown in Our Times , in a way Mark Sullivan may not have realized.
Sullivan lavishes his attention on the McGuffey Readers , believing them to be the key to “the American mind” (and largely defending his claim) and the origin of many of the preconceptions and values held by a majority of Americans during his times. The McGuffey method may look clumsy at best, preachy at worst, to modern eyes. I doubt there are many Sunday-school texts with so relentless an emphasis on moral instruction, and that emphasis pervaded every aspect of the classroom; even penmanship exercises, Sullivan recalls, meant copying out pious proverbs.
Yet Sullivan stops short when he comes to the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree, a typical lesson in the McGuffey Readers . Sullivan writes that such stories may have encouraged cynicism in American schoolchildren, since they were so often called upon to repeat and believe what they knew perfectly well to be untrue: “By the 1920s, youth doubted whether that story accorded with what they —or their fathers—would have done under similar circumstances, and decided it was inconsistent with their own observations of life—and passed on to raise doubts about some other orthodox statements of history and rules of conduct.” Indeed, the cherry-tree legend reminds him of all the tales of wise, well-behaved, and well-spoken farm animals that fill McGuffey’s pages and that must have seemed ridiculous to young people growing up in a predominantly agricultural America. Sullivan sees a whole trend of youthful cynicism and wonders if it isn’t a rebellion against McGuffey; he doesn’t doubt it’s worrisome.
Still, these same cynics in training served their country in Great War, endured the Great Depression, and (in some cases) served their country yet again in the Second World War. This is my parents’ generation, the very generation held up to us today as exemplars of the best kind of American patriotism. If they were cynical, it doesn’t seem to have interfered much with doing their duty as Americans.
Perhaps the worst cynics after all are those who disbelieve the optimism of the young, who think the young need dictating to before they’ll do the right thing. At any rate, this kind of doubting is no new trend in American society.
The temptations to despair are many, the cynics and the naysayers numerous, yet the United States of America remains a landmark of civilization. Capable of error, but also capable of recognition and regret. Strong and proud, and unrivaled in history for its attempt to build and govern a society of multiethnic, multireligious, multiracial equals under the law. In Our Own Times we have endured many dark hours. Yet the American experiment is no less worthy and no less successful today than it has ever been. How Mark Sullivan would have loved to witness and write it all!