Review of ‘Eyewitness to America’

Eyewitness to America
Edited by David Colbert

David Colbert had a disarmingly simple idea: take all the major events of American history, add a few extras for entertainment, find someone who was there for each one, and publish their descriptions. Voilà, eh? Call it Eyewitness to America. Not altogether original, perhaps, but straightforward, worthy, most certainly dramatic and occasionally riveting.

None but the pickiest churl could find a significant omission in this compilation. It's all here, chronologically, from Columbus to Bill Gates: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson arguing politely, each deferring to the other, over who was to draft the Declaration of Independence; one of Lewis and Clark's men impetuously planting a foot on either side of the tiny stream that ultimately becomes the Missouri River; Lincoln at Gettysburg, the President moving through his speech so quickly that the photographer didn't have time to snap a picture; Rosa Parks, not so much physically tired as "tired of giving in," deciding, in that fateful moment, not to yield her seat to a white bus rider in Montgomery.

There are dozens of illuminating moments in these narratives told from the vantage point of participants and witnesses. Most of the accounts flesh out the stories we all know with human, sometimes surprising, details. Here is White Bull, the Sioux chief who actually killed Custer ("He drew his pistol. I wrenched it out of his hand and struck him with it . . . shot him in the head and fired at his heart"). And feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony denouncing a judge who fined her for daring to vote ("I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty [and I] rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law"). Gen. George C. Marshall (see George Marshall: The Last Great American?), asked by President Harry Truman to review the President's correspondence with Gen. Douglas MacArthur before Truman fired MacArthur during the Korean War, reports back to Truman, "You should have fired the son of a bitch two years ago."

Call it journalistic bias, but I prefer the action narratives (the Oklahoma land rush, the sinking of the Titanic) to the more contemplative accounts (the birth of the United Nations). And journalists are better witnesses than politician-participants grinding their ever-present axes.

The best writing, not surprisingly, is on the sports page, here represented by Heywood Broun describing a moment in a World Series game ("[The catcher] peeked at the bench to get a signal from [Giants manager John] McGraw. . . . it is etiquette to take the signals from the bench manager furtively. The catcher is supposed to pretend he is merely glancing around to see if the girl in the red hat is anywhere in the grandstand"). Or Hunter S. Thompson on the Super Bowl buildup ("For eight long and degrading days I had skulked around Houston [drinking] all the free booze I could pour into my body and [listening] to an endless barrage of some of the lamest and silliest swill ever uttered by man or beast").

Fishing among all these glittering little vignettes for a closing example, I am drawn irresistibly to an interview with Al Capone by a British journalist in 1929, in which the archetype mafioso defends himself as a poster boy for American get-up-and-go: "'My rackets,' he [said], 'are run on strictly American lines and they're going to stay that way. . . . This American system of ours . . . gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it and make the most of it.' . . . he stared at me sternly for a few seconds before reseating himself." I think it's the word "sternly" I like best.

Donald Dale Jackson, a frequent Smithsonian contributor, is a writer who is based in Connecticut; he specializes in history.

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