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Russell Freedman launches the collection with a ...
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Russell Freedman launches the collection with a fascinating account of the predictions of two nineteenth-century science-fiction writers, H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, of what was in store for the coming century. A survey of the ups and downs of American politics and presidencies, from Theodore Roosevelt through Bill Clinton, is provided by Milton Meltzer, and Albert Marrin complements this study with a discussion of the long-term effects of World War I on America.
In a compelling essay on the conservation movement, Laurence Pringle explores the change in attitudes toward the environment as Americans began to regard it as something to protect rather than exploit. On a slightly different note, Bruce Brooks considers the shifting emphasis in sports, from the "human"-scale amateur athlete to the "superhuman" professional.
Jim Murphy discusses the dramatic evolution in transportation that came with the development of the automobile and the airplane. Walter Dean Myers's overview of the civil rights struggle is intriguing fare, as are Penny Colman's observations of the progress American women have made on various fronts, from suffrage to education.
Three writers have chosen a more personal approach to their topics. Lois Lowry chronicles the ins and outs of fashion through six generations of women in her family. Eve Bunting reveals the immigration experience in the context of her own Irish-American family. And in comparing her beliefs to those of her conservative Christian father, Katherine Paterson comments on the changing status of religion in America.
Illustrated with photographs and prints of the century's milestones, some from the authors' personal collections, this is an important retrospective on a century of great change and promise.
A collection of essays by well-known authors for young people, reflecting on various aspects of life in twentieth-century America, including politics, the environment, sports, fashion, and civil rights.
SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)
When the twentieth century began, the most popular magazine for young people was St. Nicholas. Its readership covered a broad age span, from boys and girls in elementary school to young adults of sixteen and seventeen. Its content ranged just as widely and included short stories, myths, legends, poems, and articles about everything from anteaters to the newfangled automobile.
Curious to see how St. Nicholas celebrated the start of the new century, I turned to the January 1900 issue — and discovered that I was a year early. Mary Mapes Dodge, the magazine's editor (or "conductor," as she preferred to call herself), explained why in a note to her readers. "Many regard 1900 as marking the first year of a new century, though this is not really the case," Mrs. Dodge wrote. "The first century began with the first year of the Christian era, A.D. 1. The first year of the twentieth century will begin with the year 1901."
Properly instructed by conductor Dodge, I jumped ahead a year to the issue for January 1901. There I found a lead article titled "The Dawn of the Twentieth Century" by a writer named Tudor Jenks. "Days, weeks, months, and years pass without especial wonder," Jenks wrote. "But the ending of a century comes but once to almost all of us, and history gives to each hundred years a character of its own."
Jenks then went on to recount (briefly) what had happened in each century, from the first through the nineteenth. Near the end of the piece, he summed up the story thus far: "The steam-engine has brought the whole world within reach of every nation; the telegraph brings all happenings within knowledge;modern weapons have made the most advanced nations irresistible by untrained peoples; the printing-press brings the intelligence of whole peoples to bear on every question. Electricity becomes man's servant, and he learns to turn forces into one another."
Jenks made no predictions, however, about what was likely to happen in the century ahead. If he had, he would almost certainly have mentioned some of the topics — from politics to transportation to the changing role of women — that are explored in the pages of this anthology. He might even have begun, as this book does, with an evaluation of the science fiction writings of two of his contemporaries, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. But it's not likely Jenks would have composed as provocative and enlightening a piece as the one contributed to this volume by Russell Freedman.
The Century That Was does not pretend to be a comprehensive chronicle of everything significant that happened in the twentieth century. There is no discussion, for instance, of the phenomenal growth and development of the movies, starting with the silent, flickering, black-and-white shorts that were projected in storefront "nickelodeons," and culminating in the special effectsfilled blockbusters that are shown in mall cineplexes today.
Nor is there an account of the vast changes that took place in the way Americans obtained news of what was going on in the world. At the beginning of the century, such information came almost entirely via the written word in newspapers and magazines. By the late 1920s, radio broadcasts and movie newsreels had been added to the media mix. They, in turn, were followed by television after World War II and by the Internet in the last years of the century. As these changes occurred, the means by which most information was conveyed shifted dramatically from the verbal to the visual.
Instead of a comprehensive report, this book offers a selection of topics that the individual contributors were eager to explore. Each writer was encouraged to approach his or her subject in whatever way seemed most comfortable and appropriate. The result is a lively, stimulating, and sometimes quirky gathering of essays, no two of which are alike in terms of voice or style.
Several of the pieces are marvels of distillation, managing to depict a century of activity in a small number of pages. Notable among these are Milton Meltzer's clear-eyed survey of American politics from the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt to that of Bill Clinton; Penny Colman's entertaining and informative account of the progress American women made on various fronts; Laurence Pringle's compelling summary of the conservation movement and the campaign to protect the environment; and Walter Dean Myers's panoramic overview of the civil rights struggle, highlighted by contrasting biographical sketches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Other essays focus closely on a single event or development that affected American life in some major way. Examples of this approach can be found in Jim Murphy's revealing investigation of the myriad changes brought about by the automobile; in Bruce Brooks's unsettling portrayal of the shift in emphasis in sports from the amateur to the professional; and in Albert Marrin's in-depth study of the long-term effects of America's participation in World War I.
Still others assume a refreshingly personal stance. Eve Bunting frames her essay on immigration with poignant memories of her own experiences when she, her husband, and their three young children emigrated to America from Northern Ireland. Through a skillful blending of words and family photos, Lois Lowry traces the ins and outs of fashion as they were reflected in the lives of six generations of women in her family. Katherine Paterson compares her beliefs with those of her minister father as she meditates on the status of religion in twentieth-century America and the often heated conflict that developed between religion and science.
It's interesting to note how many of the essays connect and interrelate. For example, Milton Meltzer's political history incorporates aspects of the civil rights movement and the fight for women's rights. By the same token, Penny Colman's essay on women is in part a political history, as are Walter Dean Myers's account of the civil rights movement, Katherine Paterson's thoughts on religion, and Eve Bunting's survey of immigration. Albert Marrin's chronicle of World War I overlaps with the struggle for greater equality of both women and blacks.
All of the essays look ahead in one way or another toward the twenty-first century. Several emphasize the important role young people can play in advancing worthy causes. Milton Meltzer mentions the more than one hundred million Americans, eight million of them between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, who volunteer their time each week in various community activities. Laurence Pringle describes the accomplishments of young people across the country who have taken part in the fight to preserve the environment. "They knew," he writes, "that the twenty-first century would bring new problems, new challenges."
In this, young people today are not so different from the young people who greeted the arrival of the last century. They, too, looked forward to a new era filled with challenges and opportunities. One of them, Marguerite Knopf, age seventeen, expressed her feelings in a poem that appeared in St. Nicholas. Here are the concluding stanzas of Marguerite's poem, which could have been written yesterday:
Good-by, old dying century;
We welcome in the new;
And in the next one hundred years
Let's see what man can do.
The generation coming —
And that is you and I —
Will be the men and women
To whom the nations cry.
Oh, welcome to the century!
The chances that it brings
For you and me to fill the world
With grand and joyous things!
Copyright © 2000 by James Cross Giblin
|Looking Back at Looking Forward: Predicting the Twentieth Century||1|
|America's First World War||31|
|A Hundred Years of Wheels and Wings||53|
|The Century Babies Became Pros||70|
|Great Strides: Women in the Twentieth Century||79|
|The Changing Concept of Civil Rights in America||93|
|Politics--Not Just for Politicians||115|
|Trust and Obey: A Personal Look at Twentieth-Century Religion||129|
|Heroes for the Whole Earth||149|
|For Further Reading||160|