A Century of Destiny

It was 1908, a year whose importance was certified at the very stroke of midnight, when, for the first time ever, a ball covered with light bulbs descended a flagpole in Times Square, an event that would eventually give rise to Dick Clark. Exactly 12 months later, Wilbur Wright astonished the world by flying an airplane for two hours and 20 minutes. This was America's year of destiny, although, of course, they almost all were. In "America 1908," the journalist Jim Rasenberger assembles from a jumble of events—the sensational trial for the murder of the architect Stanford White, the race to reach the North Pole, the introduction of the Ford Model T—a grand and inspiring panoply that almost disguises the fact that these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

Like other narrative forms, history must have its stars and supporting players. Some years need no introduction, like 1492 or 1776. The War of 1812, even if most Americans have forgotten why it was fought, nevertheless guarantees immortality to its namesake year. Amid the drab procession of centuries constituting the Middle Ages, 1066 stands out for the Norman conquest of England, an event that combines the two star qualities of consequentiality and contingency. The history of Europe down to the present day would look very different if the Battle of Hastings had gone the other way, as it might have. Battles and, even more so, assassinations represent the ne plus ultra of contingency. One misfire and Lincoln lives; a second, and Archduke Ferdinand survives and the first world war never happens. The course of history swerved unpredictably in 1968; replay the tape and jostle Sirhan Sirhan at just the right moment and see what happens then. The mind reels.

Some years demand a little more effort from the historian to justify a place in the spotlight. But the publishing industry is up to the challenge. Authors have detected significant turning points in 1919 ("Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America," by Ann Hagedorn), 1920 ("The Year of the Six Presidents," by David Pietrusza), 1929 ("America Before the Crash," by Warren Sloat) and 1941 ("A Nation at the Crossroads," by Ross Gregory). We're not even counting 1900 ("1900," by Edward Tannenbaum), on the ground that finding significance in a year that marks the turn of a century is like shooting fish in a barrel. And what a mighty freight of history those years carry! In the very year that the Allies hammered out the Treaty of Versailles, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler and the second world war, Jackie Robinson was born, dial telephones went into service and F. Scott Fitzgerald finished "This Side of Paradise." The 9/11 attacks had a predecessor in the Wall Street terror bombing of 1920, one of the events that triggered the war against "radicals" that would dominate American politics for a generation. Momentous events were bearing down on America in 1929 and 1941, unforeseen except by a prescient few, in light of which even the most inane snatch of dialogue from an "Amos 'n Andy" show can be invested with as much portent as "The Waste Land."

Certain themes come up again and again as writers survey that eventful century. Baseball, for one, as a mirror of society in all its corruption, or purity, as the case may be. You can't talk about 1908 without evoking Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, or 1919 without the "Black Sox" scandal, or leave Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak out of a book about 1941. More somberly, the state of race relations makes for a continuing, dirgeful theme throughout the century: blacks who failed to keep the place to which society consigned them, particularly around white women, were being lynched in 1908, and again in 1919 (when soldiers who had fought in the world war rebelled at returning to a country that treated them as second-class citizens).

We are living in the world they made, for better and worse, these jitterbugging, gin-swilling, spats-wearing ancestors of ours, blundering their way through a century whose worst horrors still lay before them. They looked up at the sky at an airplane (or, more likely, read about one in a magazine) and saw a machine that, as Scientific American wrote, would put an end to international aggression by making it impossible to launch a surprise attack without being observed. Or, in a New York Times editorial quoted by Rasenberger—and we looked it up ourselves, because we couldn't believe it, either—they looked at the automobile and saw a machine destined to be used for many purposes, including warfare, "if, as we hope, the wars of the world have not all been fought." That was just about a hundred years ago, and we know now that the Times' wish was granted many times over. The lesson is that we just can't stop ourselves from making history. Even when it might be a good idea.