A hundred years of measured judgements

From Adolf Hitler to Scarlett O'Hara, The New York Times book reviews provide a century's worth of insight into the spirit of the day
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The Independent Online
Newspapers rarely look back at the judgements they made on great events of the past, perhaps because it is usually too embarrassing. We get things wrong. Given the time-scale to which newspapers are written and the range of subjects tackled, perhaps our record is understandable. But what about the more measured judgements that we print in the form of book reviews? Books, despite the explosion of electronic media, remain the main clearing house for new ideas in the world, and the role of reviewers is, literally, critical in enabling that great clearing house to operate.

But reviews do something more. They tell us not only about the ideas in the books themselves, but they give us a glimpse of the society into which they were launched. So to read old reviews is not just to enjoy the game of "did they get it right?", but to catch a feel for the whole culture of the age.

One hundred years ago, The New York Times launched a new section on books. It had published reviews before, but these had been scattered through the news columns. The paper's new owner, Adolph Ochs, decided that they should be brought together in a special section. To celebrate that decision, the paper has now republished a selection of its book reviews over the past 100 years, which, thanks to a friend in New York, has just winged its way to me.

And what a thrill it is. Let's apply three tests: what did the paper's reviewers say about what is arguably the most important political tract of the century; about the popular novel that was made into the century's most successful film; and about what many would claim was the definitive American novel of the century?

The first is My Battle, the book we know better by its German title, Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. The judgement on this (the English language version, published in 1933) actually stands up very well. The reviewer, James Gerard, sketches the troubled history of Germany from the Thirty Years' War to the humiliation in 1918, and argues that Hitler's rise can only be explained in that context. "Germany is a camp, unarmed, perhaps, but one great military camp, psychologically, if not materially, ready for a war of conquest and revenge. Hitler could not have attained such power unless he represented the thoughts and aspirations of a majority of the population."

The reviewer acknowledged what Hitler had achieved: "Hitler is doing much for Germany, his unification of the Germans, his destruction of Communism, his training of the young, his creation of a Spartan State, his curbing of parliamentary government, so unsuited to the German character; his protection of the right of private property are all good; and after all, what the Germans do in their own territory is their own business, except for one thing - the persecution and practical expulsion of the Jews."

Some of the tone, knowing what we know now, might seem a little odd, but the reviewer did - right back in 1933 - correctly identify the potential ghastly catastrophe of Hitler's rule: what we now call the Holocaust.

To his great credit, the reviewer went back to the German edition of Mein Kampf and noted the omission of many hostile references to the Jews in the English language version. Even so, there were pages and pages of vitriol, which are correctly and chillingly identified in the review. "It is with sadness, tinged with fear for the world's future, that we read Hitler's hymn of hate..."

Now test number two. The book is Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Here is how the (anonymous) review starts: "This is beyond doubt one of the most remarkable first novels produced by an American writer. It is also one of the best." Not bad, particularly since the review highlights the fact that it is "a bounteous feast of excellent storytelling", that "Miss Mitchell's real triumph is Scarlett O'Hara, a heroine lacking in many virtues - in nearly all, one might say, but courage ...", and that she made Rhett Butler "credible and alive". How, one thinks, with such a bull's-eye of a review (which must surely reflect the way the book struck other contemporary readers) could the MGM executive Irving Thalberg say to Louis B Mayer, when he heard that the latter was planning the movie: "Forget it, Louis. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel"?

Test three is The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps it is impossible to set a novel into its historical context until the social ideas of the time have moved on, but here the reviewer, Edwin Clark, acknowledges the book's ability to capture the feel of an age, but does not really spot its utter specialness. It is "more a long short story than a novel". Fitzgerald himself is "the steadiest performer and the most entertaining" of the new novelists, but he is one of a bunch. The reviewer admires Fitzgerald's skill and craft; he notes the remarkable way in which the background of the central character, Jay Gatsby, is hardly sketched, but his obsession with Daisy Buchanan is explicitly identified. Clark can see that there is some factor X in the novel, something that sets it apart, but his conclusion: "A curious book, a mystical, glamorous story of today" suggests that he does not really know what that is. (But, then again, do we now?)

My own score for these three reviews would be a slightly flawed hit, a bull's-eye, and a near miss. But all are of the highest quality. These three tests surely show that this bit of the great clearing house of the world of ideas was doing its job then, just as I hope it is still doing its job now.

And the boobs? To their great credit, the editors of this collection also tell us of some of the less successful reviews that the paper has carried in the past 100 years. Reviewers managed to savage, among others, HG Wells' The Invisible Man, EM Forster's Howard's End, JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and, most recently, waited a year before gracing Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County with any review at all.

But getting things wrong surely doesn't matter. What matters is to take writing seriously. Does any British or American paper offer this quality of thought today? Is there not too much clever-clever glitz, mutual back- scratching, point-scoring and settling of private squabbles? I sometimes fear so.