Witness to a Century, by George Seldes. New York: Ballantine Books. 490 pp. $19.95. There is a practice in common use on television today - from commercials to MTV to news documentaries - where, in a minute or so, the viewer might see several hundred images, none lingering on the screen for more than a portion of a second. The effect is mesmerizing. The images are seared onto the consciousness with an effectiveness that a more leisurely look cannot match.
George Seldes, a thoroughly contemporary man at the age of 96, has used the same device - and produced the same effect - in his swiftly moving and passionate memoir of his three-quarters of century as a working journalist. No chapter is more than a dozen pages long, no sketch more than a few hundred words.
In one chapter alone we get glimpses of Sarah Bernhardt, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, and Billy Sunday. Another chapter gives us Einstein, Freud, and Isadora Duncan. Seldes tells us how he coaxed Trotsky into posing for a picture; argued with Hemingway; briefed Calvin Coolidge on life in Russia; and emerged none the worse for wear from run-ins with J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy.
Woodrow Wilson, Bernard Baruch, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cole Porter, Errol Flynn, Sinclair Lewis, and a hundred less-celebrated travelers through Seldes's century pass quickly on and off the stage, leaving indelible impressions through Seldes's deft and very human sketches.
Things must of necessity be brief: Seldes has witnessed and experienced and contemplated so much that to dwell on any of it at any length would have rendered a tome several volumes long. His career began in Pittsburgh in 1909 - 1909! - then took him to Europe: first to General Pershing's press corps and then to the European edition of the Chicage Tribune. He left in 1929 to write the first of more than 20 books. Yet no journalist of equivalent achievement remains so little known.
His obscurity is ironic; it is the direct result of the sort of thing that's made other journalists famous - a puckish nature and a predilection for controversy that kept getting him thrown out of places.
William Jennings Bryan, dressed in nothing but a union suit, tossed the young Seldes out of his hotel room for asking an impertinent question. Lenin tossed him out of Russia, and Mussolini (a one-time journalist who inscribed a picture to Seldes ``to my dear colleague'') threw him out of Italy. But the only exile that stung was when journalism itself threw him out.
When the books he wrote during the 1930s criticizing the press began to hit close to home, Seldes was blackballed by the establishment press and reduced to publishing his own four-page weekly, which lived a rocky 10-year life before being redbaited to death in 1950.
But Seldes was a remarkably resilient chap, and he remains so in this book. He spends none of his still-keen indignation on any personal injustice. His anger remains directed at large matters. He is still hurt over what he sees as the West's betrayal of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War; he remains upset with mistakes journalists made some 20, 40, even 70 years ago, mistakes that have found their way into history books. He still feels it his mission to set the record straight and does so at every opportunity, a 96-year-old Don Quixote, charming the world while he earnestly seeks to make it a better place.
Charles Fountain teaches journalism at Northeastern University.