An era seen through a squint of despair

Encyclopedia of The United States in the Twentieth Century
July 4, 1997

The past decade has seen a growing fascination in American publishing for encyclopedias of all sorts, from The Encyclopedia of the American Judicial System to James Madison and the American Nation, 1751-1836: An Encyclopedia. Now comes this sprawling monument to the United States in the 20th century - four densely packed volumes with a separate paperbound index. It is a prodigious undertaking.

There is also something rather irritating about it. Here we have what one presumes the editors assume will be the definitive account of the US during this soon-to-end century - published a full four years before the century flickers to a close. Given the lead time such a publication as this would require, one can only suspect that for the editors the 20th century ended no less than five years before the rest of the world will mark the occasion. The editors can only hope nothing too important or tumultuous happens between now and then; their good luck that the Soviet Union collapsed when it did goes nearly without saying.

This disregard for what the average reader may perceive to be the 20th century - from, say, January 1, 1900 through December 31, 1999 - is not a matter of carelessness on the part of the editors. Rather, it reflects an historiographical disdain for neat packages of time such as centuries. From this perspective the 20th century might properly be regarded as beginning in 1898 and ending in 1991. This way of looking at history sees events as defining the contours of time in a way that allows the definition of centuries to depend on things less concrete than mere years. Professorial opinion supplants temporal precision.

This is a work designed to canvass the US during the 20th century (however one might define it) from nearly every imaginable angle. This is done by dividing the material into six parts: the American people, politics, global America, science, technology and medicine, the economy, and culture. Each of the entries is a substantial article of approximately 25 pages, and each points the reader towards other sources in the brief bibliographical essays appended. Perhaps the most useful tool (besides the comprehensive index) is a chronology of the 20th century that serves as preface to the first volume and provides a snapshot of what was happening in the US at any given moment. Thus are we reminded, for example, that in 1934 nylon was invented and T. S. Eliot published After Strange Gods.

In a sense, one of the greatest weaknesses of this work is at once its breadth and depth. Eighty historians have contributed the substantive essays and briefer introductions to its six parts. There is thus a vast range of ability on display despite the claim that all contributors are truly "distinguished". The real problem, however, is that each of the essays tries to cover too much ground. Take the section on politics as an example. To get at certain facts of a presidential administration, for instance, one has to plough through the index for the particular president and then skip around in the various long essays to find the desired information. There are no simple entries for Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan where the reader can turn for a clear encapsulation of the features that defined two of the most significant political eras in the US this century. To get a full picture, the reader would have to sift through all 12 essays in the section. In short, as a convenient reference work, this encyclopedia is not a very valuable contribution.

This weakness is especially obvious if the encyclopedia is compared with another project of similar scope and ambition, The Encyclopedia of the American Constitution edited by Leonard Levy in 1986. While in the latter there are also essays of some considerable length, most entries are in the order of a page or less. Thus one can turn to the subject to be explored and quickly find the facts needed. For instance, there is a crisp and clear five-page account of Roosevelt and a two-page summary of Reagan. Examples of this sort could be stacked up. As a result, The Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century is unlikely ever to become an indispensable first-stop research aid in the same way many constitutional and legal scholars view The Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.

There is another, more troubling problem that issues from this format of long essays. Scholars inevitably have rather well-polished points of view when it comes to the subjects of their expertise. While contributors might honestly strive for total objectivity in an essay intended as part of an encyclopedic collection, it is unlikely that all subjective interpretations will be left at the door.

This is a problem inherent in the very idea of an encyclopedia. By definition such works are intended to be comprehensive, pulling together all one needs to know about a given subject and reducing that information into an orderly assemblage of digestible articles. The practical defect of any such enterprise, however laudable in principle, is distortion. The picking and choosing inevitably skews the information thus assembled. Such works are invariably subjective in both their scope and orientation, and this work most assuredly has a clear editorial point of view. Thus what is presented as fact is likely to strike many readers as a matter of interpretation. If the information pulled together is indeed arguable, then the entire effort to be truly encyclopedic has failed.

This survey of the US is fitted into an editorial context sketched by the editor-in-chief, Stanley I. Kutler, a distinguished historian from the University of Wisconsin. That context begins with the premise that by the end of the 20th century "the grandiose concept of the 'American Century' no longer has any reality". Moreover, in the view presented here, America ended the century "shrouded in pessimism and uncertainty", with any notion of American pre-eminence - political, economic or military - "severely challenged". The grand view given here is plain and direct: "Diminished expectations dominated society's outlook as the 20th century ended." The problem is, of course, that it is not simply evident that this assessment is true; these are arguable points, not proven facts. The result, by and large, is a view of the US at century's end that tends towards the politically correct. Whether one views it through such a squint of despair or sees it in a far brighter light is a matter of interpretation. There are those who would insist - and with considerable evidence to support their view - that not only was the 20th century the American century but so will be the 21st. Not everyone is willing to declare dead the notion of American exceptionalism.

When it comes to social phenomena and policies the general perspective follows the broad outlines of the editor's introduction. Race, we learn, is "a social construct", something that "ceased to be merely a concept ... (and) became an ideology". When it comes to the social implications of sexual difference (or, as the editors would have it, "gender issues") we are instructed as to what is meant by "socially acquired characteristics of femaleness and maleness, in contrast to biological distinctions of sex". As with race, sexual differences are also social constructs and we can only hope to improve our understanding of the 20th century once greater attention is devoted to the concept of "maleness" and all its implications.

Public policy is glimpsed from a similar angle. We are told, for example, that "America's ... reluctance to mount a national attack on poverty and inequality" has been the result largely of the fact (as so stated here) that most Americans think "most of the poor ... undeserving". And when it comes to families and so-called family values those looking for guidance in these pages are assured that "the challenge facing American society ... is to provide a supportive environment ... based on current and long-term trends rather than past expectations in order to enhance their capacity to raise children to become healthy adults". Ozzie and Harriet Nelson are no more.

In case there is any doubt as to whether left or right is essentially correct in its approaches to the social ills that plague the contemporary family, we are given a vivid contrast between conservatives and liberals as to how they view such problems. Conservatives have sought to implement their profamily programme by seeking "to restrict or abolish access to abortion, blocking the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, censoring eroticism on television and song-lyrics, and limiting teenagers' access to contraceptives and information on choices regarding pregnancy". Liberals, on the other hand, have offered proposals to assist families that "include expanded nutritional and health programs for pregnant women, federal subsidies for daycare services for low-income families, uniform national standards of child-care centres and a requirement that employers give parents unpaid leave to take care of a newborn or seriously ill child". While at one level these are statements of fact, the tone and juxtaposition of their presentation serves to press a heavy thumb on one side of the ideological scale.

In the end, The Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century is not so much a collection of definitive statements about the US that will prove timeless in their appeal and usefulness as a collection of interpretive essays about the major themes and issues of this past 100 (or at least 95) years. That is not to say this is a work without value, but only to suggest that it fails to be all that it aspired to be.

Gary L. McDowell is director, Institute of United States studies, University of London.

Encyclopedia of The United States in the Twentieth Century: Volumes 1-4

Editor - Stanley I. Kutler with Robert Dallek, David A. Hollinger, Thomas K. McCraw
ISBN - 0 13 210535 7 (set)
Publisher - Scribners
Price - $99.00 (set)
Pages - 1941

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