Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 85 (August/September 1998): 66-69.
A Thread of Years. By John Lukacs. Yale University Press. 481 pp. $30.
Reviewed by George McKenna
Historian John Lukacs has written a year-by-year meditation on the twentieth century, or most of it anyway. The book starts in 1901 and ends in 1969, when, according to Lukacs, Anglo-American civilization finally petered out. Each year gets a chapter (a very small one; most of the chapters run five to seven pages) consisting of a fictional vignette followed by the author’s rather contentious dialogue with himself. The book has no structure, save that marked out by the succession of years, no characters lasting through it (unless we count a mysterious "K.," who pops up intermittently, sometimes disappearing for a decade or more), and no apparent plot.
The vignettes and dialogues serve as vehicles for the author’s sometimes cranky judgments and tastes. He hates the Guggenheim Museum, New England intellectuals, Casablanca, and the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. Whittaker Chambers, he says, was "wrong, wrong, wrong"; one chapter’s vignette has a character who appears to be a caricature of Hannah Arendt, and the character is pronounced a "fraud"; he thinks that if Hitler had been assassinated the Germans would have revived their stab-in-the-back theory, which would rankle again for years to come; and then there is that business about the death of a civilization, of which more presently.
An eccentric book—yet it works. It succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to recall the sights, the sounds, the textures of successive years in this century as they might have been experienced by people living in these years. It is not, Lukacs announces at the beginning, a book about characters but about years, and it brings to us some of the peculiar essences of those years: the stillness of a Friday evening at the Philadelphia Club in early September of 1901, the poverty and dreariness of 1919 Vienna ("Cold rain, mendicant streets, the November sky the color of sour milk"), the "pervasive cloud of perfume and cigarette smoke" in a crowded Berlin drawing-room in 1932.
Readers looking for Hitler, or even talk of Hitler, in that drawing room, will be disappointed. (The party was celebrating the latest success of a Jewish operetta composer.) Nor will they find Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, or Wilson in 1919. Lukacs has scant respect for "novelized histories," where authors put their own words into the mouths of great historical figures. What he tries to do is the opposite: "I am writing about everyday people whose plausibility exists only because of the historical reality of their times and places." Lukacs’ original title for this book was Remnants. The book catches us up, pulls us into the remnants of those years; aesthetically and emotionally we experience them as the people in them did, or at any rate as they might have. Here is a scene he sets in the America of the mid-fifties:
It is New England, Indian summer, perhaps windier and cooler than usual on this October afternoon . . . the scarlet, brown, and gold leaves are blowing across the commons of the college. . . . This is a women’s college, one of the three most reputable and prosperous New England ones, and this is 1955, still a few years before the custom of book bags, knapsacks, and ragged clothing. So there is the peculiar posture and walk of American girl students carrying their books against their chests and stomachs, holding them against their bodies.
Yes, there was a time when college students did not wear knapsacks or drape bags over their shoulders, when female students could be called "girls," and when many of them did seem to hold their books in that odd manner. We can look back with nostalgia or disgust, but there it is, an authentic remnant.
In evoking these scenes Lukacs is also developing a theme, the decline of "Anglo-Saxon America," and this is the least plausible part of the book. The 1955 campus scene, for example, takes place in Indian summer. This is Lukacs’ trope for the final years before the collapse of Anglo-American civilization. Cracks were already starting to appear in 1955, "even though the wider public evidences of those cracks did not show until the sixties."
The Hannah Arendt character appears in this vignette, and she represents all the jaded European intellectuals who got into our universities and denigrated American civilization (which, by the way, Hannah Arendt never did). Lukacs, who is himself of Hungarian origin, is less than clear on what the substance of Anglo-American civilization is, or was. "What I have in mind," he says to himself in the 1969 chapter, "is the erosion of beliefs and institutions and manners and morals and habits that can no longer be restored." His alter ego then chimes in: "You have been writing about the decline not of the West but of the Anglo-American upper class." He agrees: this was the class composed of "the most respected and admired men in the world. Think only of the English word gentlemen."
One struggles to make sense of this. We are dealing, it seems, with a class that died out in 1969, a class of gentlemen. This at least helps to explain Lukacs’ narrow range of settings and personae. All of the vignettes are set either in East Coast America or in Europe, and nearly all the people in them are upper-class types. He takes us to Philadelphia and its leafy suburbs, to London, to Paris, to Berlin, to Leipzig, to Vienna and Budapest, then back to Gramercy Park in Manhattan, then up to the Maine Coast and back to Martha’s Vineyard. We are traveling in the company of eminent professors (lots of professors in these stories), artists, military attachés, industrialists, and rich people with no apparent occupation and plenty of leisure.
Lukacs’ world of "Anglo-America" seems an awfully small slice of America. In geographic history it antedates the Louisiana Purchase, and demographically it was seriously challenged by the Celtic immigration near the middle of the nineteenth century, not to mention the arrival of millions from Southern and Eastern Europe at the close of the century. From one standpoint, Anglo-Saxon America had pretty well ended by the time his book begins in 1901.
If, on the other hand, what he means is the American civilization founded by Anglo-Saxons, shouldn’t some recognition be given to all the honest and decent non-Anglos who played by its rules and helped sustain it through this century? Ethnic working classes appear in only one chapter of this book, and then only as extras, processants circumambulating a new Catholic church. There are no American Jews in the book, no Italians, no blacks, and the only Irish-Americans with speaking and thinking roles are a priest about to become a monsignor and some prosperous parishioners. He has Manhattan vignettes set in Gramercy Park and the East Side around midtown, but not in Hell’s Kitchen, not in Harlem, not on the Lower East Side, not at City College.
Even if we limit ourselves to Protestant America, it is difficult to find a real-life match for what he understands by the term "gentlemen": respectable, courtly men who held fast to hallowed beliefs and traditions. Right now I am looking at an engraving in my American government textbook that depicts an altercation on the floor of the Philadelphia Congress Hall in 1798. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont is menacing Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut with fireplace tongs, and Griswold is preparing to defend himself with a club; the fight began after Griswold spat in Lyon’s face. In the next century there were canings on the floor of Congress, and Bowie knives presented. A backwoodsman was elected President and a savage civil war broke out.
Yes, there were gentlemen—Robert E. Lee was a gentleman—but were they the ones who shaped America’s dynamic civilization? Were the Radical Republicans gentlemen? Were the captains of industry? Was Teddy Roosevelt? ("That damned cowboy," Mark Hanna called him.) The term doesn’t fit, because the genteel aura Lukacs surrounds it with doesn’t fit America. He has tried to recast our history in a Burkean mold, as the organic growth of civil traditions. But the real America is always building up and pulling down, abruptly breaking with the past, then trying to restore it, then starting again, creatively bungling its way through history.
Still, Lukacs seems right to surmise that something has ended in America since the end of the 1960s. What it was, and what caused it to end, is never precisely spelled out, but that is all right. This is not an analytical book but a book of evocations, summoning the remnants—some of the remnants—of a certain way of life. The book is not quite Whitmanesque in its scope, but that too is all right. Lukacs has brought us some shells he has selected from a past that he loves. His tone is elegiac: he knows that what lived in those shells died long ago. But the shells themselves seemed so beautiful to him that he had to show them to us; so he did, after polishing them and perhaps slightly enhancing the colors. His effort, I think, is successful, all the more because he seems to have pulled it off so effortlessly. It is a graceful goodbye to this century.
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.