A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Aspirin Age was published in the U.S.A. in 1949, four years after the Second World War ended. In twenty-two specially commissioned essays it looked backwards over the decades that separated the two conflicts that defined the twentieth century and attempted to answer the question as to just how it was that the country we now associate with a vigorous foreign policy turned its back on the world. “Suggestive rather than definitive,” wrote the reviewer in the The Saturday Review of August 1949; the Forum of that same month called it “a collection of chapters on the sometimes comic and sometimes tragic highlights of yesteryear.” It was, I feel, Charles Angoff, writing in The American Mercury, who touched on the book’s impact when he wrote that it recalled “…an era that seems more and more fantastic as time goes on.”
The titles of the essays give an indication as to their contents and the character of the book as a whole: The Forgotten Men of Versailles; The Crash and What it Meant; The First Hundred Days of the New Deal; Pearl Harbour Sunday: The End of an Era. A few of the author’s names surface dimly from memory: Irving Stone; Arthur M. Schlesinger; Howard Fast – authors respectively of The Agony and the Ecstasy, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House and Spartacus. Other names are better known: Lindbergh, Dempsey, Welles (in a chapter called The Night the Martians Came); others swirl up from books half-read or documentaries half-watched: Harding, Sacco and Vanzetti, Wendell Willkie, Huey Long; others leading to nothing more than a shrug: Starr Faithfull and a man who jumped from the ledge of a building in New York.
It is these last two that take the collection out from the past as seen through the long telescope employed by historians and into the living recollections of people who were close to the events themselves. Starr Faithfull was a young women whose dead and partially clothed body was discovered on the shore of Long Beach in 1931. The press had a field day (it was summer and news was scarce) and as Morris Markey makes very clear got everything wrong. The real story, as always, was more complex, sadder and gripping. John A. Warde was the protagonist of The Man on the Ledge. For a whole day in July in 1938 he stopped the traffic in New York’s Fifty-Fifth Street as he stood on the ledge of the Hotel Gotham, just beneath its roof, and threatened to jump to his death. He did so that evening, watched by ten thousand spectators who, as one, called out “There he goes!” He was a troubled young man who could see no other solution to his problems than his own suicide and whose death, as Joel Sayre explains in his essay, affected the life of a New York traffic cop who tried to save him. If history can ever be said to be just at times to the humble and forgotten, then these essays rescue the anonymous and, perhaps, make us pause and think about the world in which we live.
These are not dry historical accounts. They are written in what I would call a vigorous and dynamic prose that, I believe, characterised American writing at this time and which stood in contrast to the measured tones of their British counterparts. Robert Coughlan’s piece Konklave in Kokomo, an account of the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, begins:
On a hot July day in central Indiana – the kind of day when the heat shimmers off the tall green corn and even the bobwhites seek shade in the brush – a great crowd of oddly dressed people clustered around an open meadow. They were waiting for something; their faces, framed in white hoods, were expectant, and their eyes searched the bright blue sky. Suddenly they began to cheer. They had seen it: a speck that came from the south and grew into an aeroplane.
A voice like this is never neutral and, given that each essay is written by either a protagonist (Gene Tunney, writing about the boxer Jack Dempsey, fought him on a number of occasions) or direct witnesses, the personal always triumphs over journalistic detachment. The quiet anger of William McFee in his exposé of the institutional negligence that led to the fire in and sinking of the cruise liner Morro Castle in 1934 is all the more effective, linked as it is to his forensic dissection of the causes that led to the disaster.
Historical research, I am certain, has moved on since the book was published. Much of what of is written in the chapter on the marriage of the Edward VIII to Wallis Simpson is quite probably wrong. However, I don’t believe any of the above detracts from the book’s value in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It was published at the beginning of the atomic age, the old world gone forever, memories still raw from the war recently won, the new world uncertain but distinctly modern. These writers, calling on all their skills as writers as much as social or political historians or commentators, were attempting to make sense of those two mad decades that galloped from 1919 until 1939. It too has become a product of its time, just as much as the events described in its pages. By reading it, for both pleasure and with a critical eye, we learn something of the world in which it was born,
Does the book answer that question posed at the beginning of this review? Does it explain why America, for many decades a dynamic moral force in the world, turned its back on the rest of us? I believe it does. It does so not directly but in the accumulated effect of page after page of scandal and sensation that many of the book’s contributors call upon as the defining characteristics of that age. Look at what small town Americans, mid-west farmers and New York urban elites read each day when they opened their newspapers: the outlandish corruption of President Harding’s administration, the farce of Prohibition, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the messianic disappearance and reappearance of the preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, the demagoguery of Huey Long, alien invasions, red scares, anarchist scares and the day when the banks nearly went under. They simply had no need to look outside their borders. All human life was there in black and white and the majority let themselves be caught up in its powerful grip until it all came to a shuddering halt at Pearl Harbour on December the 7th, 1941.
The book has been out of print for many years. However, there are many second hand copies available and I recommend you look them out. It is an ideal summer read. Each chapter stands alone and as the reward for a day’s hillwalking in Scotland, an exploration of Rome’s museums or putting up with the crush in the Tower of London, I can think of few better ways to finishing the day.
My copy – Isabel Leighton (editor): The Aspirin age (Penguin, 1964).