The stories and images of modern America


With brio and deftness, 'The American Century" celebrates the relationship between character and place that defines the United States. In this compelling history of the 20th century, Harold Evans, the former president of Random House, demonstrates a novelist's knack for narrative and character as he gives names to the anonymous and nuance to the known.

For every FDR, LBJ, or JFK, he profiles a hundred unknowns who convey the spirit of America. Giving voice to the often voiceless was an important part of the endeavor for Evans, an objective he traces to his working-class roots in England.

"For 50 years, my father worked for the railroad," recalls Evans in an interview. "One time in his life, in the early fifties, he participated in a strike, hoping to secure the pension he never had. I remember turning on the television in those early days of TV only to witness the prime minister describing my father in terms that suggested he was a threat to Western civilization and that such communism must be stopped.

"Since then," he adds, "I have always read history with a healthy measure of skepticism. Actions are always more complex and nuanced than they seem. We have to be willing to wrestle with paradox in pursuing understanding.

"Conveying emotion was an important challenge in writing 'The American Century.' I wanted both objectivity and stories - factual stories - that would excite the imagination. The true teaching of history takes place through stories.

"John Steinbeck's novel 'The Grapes of Wrath' had more effect on me than any scholarly text I read on the dust bowl. And I don't read Shakespeare today because I want to reform the world; I read 'Julius Caesar' because I want to understand my fellow man."

"The American Century" evidences his deep regard for the standards of journalism he helped to establish during his 14- year tenure as editor of "The Sunday Times" in England.

Evans's publication of Labor Minister Richard Crossman's diaries in 1975 threw a klieg light on British politics.

In 1973, he successfully fought a government effort to stop his reporting about a drug company's efforts to avoid restitution to victims of Thalidomide. He counts these accomplishments among his finest.

"I am proud of the work my very able staff and I accomplished during those years at 'The Sunday Times,' " Evans says. "We were able to affect attitudes to freedom in England."

Freedom is a word sounded repeatedly by Evans. He cites it as both the catalyst and organizing theme of "The American Century."

"This book can be traced back to my initial visit to the United States and the striking degree of freedom made available to each individual," explains Evans. "Then, as now, I was impressed by the expansiveness of American freedom and the extent to which many Americans overlooked the importance of this freedom - a freedom that lies at the heart of this country, a freedom that necessitates responsibility."

For Evans, who became an American citizen in 1993, such responsibilities now include editorial posts at the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly, and U.S. News and World Report.

That work and his spirited heralding of "The American Century" reveal qualities of character Evans ascribes to the United States: an "openness and a restless disposition that never quite allow an organic optimism to congeal into self-satisfaction."

* Ron Fletcher is a freelance writer in Milton, Mass.

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