Lord, Walter. The Good Years.

NY: Harper, 1960.

Lord was one of the best popular historians of the mid-20th century, best known for his classic books on the Titanic and Pearl Harbor. His method was always to go to the original sources, especially the people who participated in, or at least witnessed, events. Behind that would be family correspondence, newspaper accounts, and anything else that was “up close and personal.” I got hold of this book my first year in college, shortly after it was published. I was already hooked on social history and I loved it. A half-century later, it well repays rereading.

In later years, Americans born in the last decade or so of the 19th century frequently regarded their early lives as the country’s last really good time, because everything was different after the Great War. The author’s plan, then, is to focus on a key event for each year, more or less, between 1900 and 1914. The list includes the Boxer Rebellion and the siege of Western diplomats in Peking, the assassination of President McKinley, the accession of Theodore Roosevelt and the effects of his overflowing personality, the Wright Brothers’ first successful powered flight, the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the trial of the IWW’s “Big Bill” Haywood with Clarence Darrow for the defense, the Wall Street Panic of 1907 in which J.P. Morgan singlehandedly saved the nation’s economy (with Teddy’s approval), the voyage of America’s “Great White Fleet” around the world (thanks to Teddy), Commander Perry’s successful dash to the North Pole, the funeral of Edward VIII (Teddy again), the first big national success for women’s suffrage, and the election of Woodrow Wilson (over both Taft and Teddy). In a couple of the chapters, where there wasn’t a single, large noteworthy event, Lord considers the effects of child labor and of a level of conspicuous consumption by millionaires that could never happen today — not publicly.

Keep in mind that there were survivors of the siege in Peking who were still alive sixty years later, as well as San Francisco firemen, sailors from the fleet, and even a couple of the young life guards who helped out Orville and Wilbur when they needed tactical muscle at Kitty Hawk. And Lord talked to all of them, also seeking out the children of those public figures who were no longer alive. His style is straightforward, letting the drama of events speak for themselves. A very readable book and I recommend it highly. Younger readers especially will learn a good deal about what they no doubt regard as ancient history.

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