Some things never change. No, seriously. It’s really easy to look at old photographs and see people wearing different clothes and living in a world without cars or computers and to say that the world is so, so different now, but if there’s one thing I took out of America, 1908, by Jim Rasenberger, it’s that nothing substantial actually changes.
America, 1908 was a fantastic look at the big news stories of roughly 100 years ago. The book was published in 2008 as a way to look back to how things were a century ago, but the bones of the stories it talked about sound very familiar: a president who confounds the nations with his radical policies, a sensational celebrity murder trial, a heart-stopping sports series, a race to discovery and the bitter dispute that followed, and the dazzling effects of a new technology that would change the way we experience the world. In other words, Theodore Roosevelt, the jealous murder of Stanford White by Harry Thaw, whose celebrity wife, Evelyn Nesbit, White was having an affair with, the Giants/Cubs pennant series, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary’s race to the North Pole, and the Wright brothers proving that flight was possible.
The book was rich with stories and details of how these events were received in their day and how they changed the world, but a few of them stuck out to me. Theodore Roosevelt has always been one of my favorite presidents, but now I have a whole new respect for what he accomplished and how he changed the office of the president forever. Teddy took no prisoners and brooked no fools during his time at the White House. He shocked and confounded both his allies and his critics by doing jaw-dropping things like inviting a black man (Booker T. Washington) to an official state dinner at the White House, demanding that the super wealthy be held accountable for their behavior and put their money to good use for the benefit of all, and pouring mountains of efforts into new programs to create national parks and preserve wild lands. Those things and more were mind-blowingly revolutionary in 1908. Roosevelt really was a man ahead of his times.
I actually knew a little bit about the Harry Thaw murder trial from the musical Ragtime. What made this trial so sensational, however, was that all of the salacious details of Evelyn Nesbit’s debauching were printed in the newspapers with astonishing detail. People lapped up this reality show! Thaw was as guilty as sin—he walked up to White in a crowded theater, put a gun to the back of his head, and fired. The trial was all about whether he was justified, seeing as White had violated not only Evelyn, but the sanctity of a marriage, and also whether Thaw was driven to insanity by it. What was really at stake was the validity and justification of the Victorian male ideal and whether it still held water in the new century. The answer seemed to be that no, it did not, which opened up a whole other can of 20th century worms. Spoiler alert: Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and shipped off to a mental institution. Apparently he didn’t think things through with his defense, though, because within weeks he was hollering that he was NOT insane and wanted out of the institution. Hmm.
In other news, literally, if I had lived in 1908 (and 09), I would have been one of the millions of people glued to the newspaper, reading about Dr. Frederick Cook and Robert Peary’s missions to the North Pole. Both men had tried and failed to reach the pole before. Both men claimed that they made it in 1908 (well, Peary claimed he made it in early 1909). Neither man could entirely prove their claims, which began a vicious debate that continues today. For almost a century Peary got the credit and Cook got the shaft. However, nowadays, based on new evidence and a reexamination of the facts, the prevailing opinion is that Cook actually did reach the pole and Peary was a lying, arrogant bastard.
The deep look at the work of the Wright brothers in 1908 was fascinating and so detailed that it would take a whole other blog post to go into. Likewise with the innovations of Henry Ford, who began producing the Model T in 1908 and changed the way we live in the process. The question as to whether these men made life better for people in the 20th century seems to be answered with a resounding “Yes”. But life wasn’t better for everyone. A heartbreaking section of the book deals with the race riots in Springfield, IL and how African Americans who had lived there for generations were run out of town. The entire discussion about how life, which had improved for a short time after the Civil War, for African Americans got worse as the message of Lincoln and the abolitionists was lost. This was undoubtedly a long, dark time for that particular chapter of this country. I found it particularly painful that all of the hope that had been won after the Civil War was yanked away from African Americans across the country for no good reason.
I could go on and on. I could talk about the terrorists that kept blowing things up in New York City and Chicago. Yes, terrorists in 1908! These ones were Anarchists though. And the scapegoats that were blamed for the terror were all of those violent, uneducated Italians and Europeans with their strange religions and insulated ways of life. That hasn’t changed much either. There will always be a scapegoat for the ignorant fears of people who fear anyone who is different.
Needless to say, I loved this book! I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to look back into a world that is very similar to our own. You might be surprised what you find!
Next up in the reading list, it’s back to good old historical romance!