'1920' Is the Lively, Readable Biography of a Seminal Year

By Donoghue, Steve | The Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 2015 | Go to article overview

'1920' Is the Lively, Readable Biography of a Seminal Year


Donoghue, Steve, The Christian Science Monitor


"Such a soundtrack, such a cast of characters, such an accumulation of deeds, admirable and otherwise," Eric Burns enthuses at the outset of his sprightly and captivating new book 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, "such a time to be alive!"

That same note of enthusiasm is sounded throughout Burns's take on the year he views as America's first as a triumphant world power, in the aftermath of the First World War, when America "flourished almost by default; it was rich and on the verge of growing richer than any other nation in history."

The cast of characters Burns mentions is indeed stellar, and he ticks off the famous names, from the presidents - Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge - to the plutocrats amassing fortunes that, when adjusted for inflation, dwarf any in private hands today, men like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan (and their dark mirror-image, Charles Ponzi, inventor of the original Ponzi scheme).

The arts world also flourished, sporting names like Louis Armstrong, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill, and the wits of the Algonquin Round Table. Burns likewise spends ample time on social activists like Marcus Garvey and proto- feminists like Margaret Sanger. Burns sifts through a wide array of secondary sources (it's not a work of original scholarship, but Burns doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over that fact, and neither will his readers) for the best quotes, the choicest stories, and the forgotten but fascinating incidents.

"Keyhole" popular histories like this one, books that impose the gimmicky structure of one calendar year onto a mass of data in an attempt to craft a narrative that won't intimidate history-chary readers, tend to have all the strengths and all the weaknesses of what is, essentially, a compromise move.

The main strength is accessibility, of course: a book like David McCullough's "1776" or Charles Mann's "1491" (and its sequel, "1493") can pull even the least-knowledgeable reader into a story that starts in January and ends at Christmas. The main weakness is equally obvious: overreach. Virtually no year in human history is sufficient unto itself, not even the perennial favorites: 1066, 1918, and 2001.

1920 is no exception, naturally, though Burns works very hard to offset that fact.

He starts his account of the year off quite literally with a bang: the anti-capitalist terrorist strike carried out on Thursday, September 16, 1920 against Wall Street's Morgan Bank, in which the detonation of "the equivalent of one hundred pounds of dynamite and five hundred pounds of cast-iron sash weights, which acted, in effect, like shrapnel" killed 38 people and injured more than 400 more. …

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