Commentary Magazine


From This Moment On: America in 1940, by Jeffrey Hart

On the Eve of Greatness

From This Moment On: America in 1940.
by Jeffrey Hart.
Crown. 352 pp. $22.50.

As times change so do preferences for the past. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the eras of choice were the American 1930’s (on their politically radical side) and 1920’s Weimar Germany (on its culturally radical side). In the 1980’s our much-touted retreat from radicalism has shifted interest to the inwardness of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Depending on one’s point of view, each of these earlier periods can be seen either as a model or as a caution, but what their interpreters always have in mind, at least implicitly, is their similarity or contrast with the sweeping-away of established norms and values accomplished by the American counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s.

Jeffrey Hart’s previous book, When the Going Was Good: American Life in the 1950’s, was an explicit challenge to the notion fostered by celebrants of the 60’s that the preceding Eisenhower decade had been an age of conformity waiting to be purified by the winds of the counterculture. Drawing on his own memories, on popular histories, and particularly on sports, he reconstructed an era of admirable self-confidence fed by a conviction of national strength and a positive commitment to settled behavior.

But the last period when the going was really good, at least from the point of view of Jeffrey Hart—a professor of English at Dartmouth, an editor of National Review, and a syndicated columnist of conservative views—was the time just before World War II, and in particular the year 1940, when he was ten. Much more so even than the 1950’s, this is a period requiring a strong reinterpretive effort if it is to be transformed from the worst of times to the best of times. After all, in 1940 the Depression had not yet lifted; Hitler’s Blitzkrieg had overcome Denmark, Norway, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and France; the escape of the British Expeditionary Force over the water from Dunkirk was followed by the nearly fatal air Battle of Britain; in the wake of Stalin’s pact with Hitler, Finland was being decimated by the Soviet Union while Japan was brutally subjugating China and threatening much of the Pacific.

Nevertheless, Jeffrey Hart is able to find a spirit of energetic hopefulness and good will in the United States of 1940. The New York World’s Fair conveyed a sense that the sleeping giant, America, was about to forge a modern society of technological wonders. Though the war already on the horizon would blast much of that promise, it would also demonstrate that Americans were equal to the moral and physical challenges of the times. For Hart, the source of this capability and much else that is to be admired in American life in 1940 derived from the outlook and spirit of the American middle class—informed, genteel, “progressive in the old sense,” high-minded, optimistic, dedicated to fair play.

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Hart conveys his attachment to the period through a combination of his own childhood recollections—he was himself the son of middle-class Republicans—and a newsreel-like account, reminiscent of John Dos Passos, that reaches back into the 1930’s and forward well into the war. He recalls summers at the Jersey shore and trips to the World’s Fair, the new LaGuardia Airport, and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. He provides sketches of Dunkirk and the Finnish war, and essays on Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. He discusses the books and movies of 1940; analyzes the styles of the year’s sports greats (Joe Dimaggio, Joe Louis, Sonja Henie, and the tennis players Don Budge and Frank Shields) and recreates outstanding sports events: the Dartmouth upset of Cornell in football and Don McNeill’s victory over Bobby Riggs in the U.S. lawn tennis championship.

Hart’s originality in treating these subjects lies in his setting before the reader the fruits of his perceptive and imaginative reading in previously published accounts of the period, including those of contemporary journalists, from whom he quotes extensively. For example, from a contemporary issue of Architectural Record he has rescued a perceptive observation that the crowds snaking their way along ramps to the exhibits at the World’s Fair were themselves being made a decorative element in the spectacle. And he has found striking passages in Richard Snow’s Coney Island, Walter Lord’s The Miracle of Dunkirk, Isaiah Berlin on Churchill, Mencken on the 1940 Republican Convention, and small gems from Westbrook Pegler, Will Durant, Joseph Alsop, Arthur Daley, and Jimmy Cannon.

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When it comes to the selection of minor personalities and events, on which the texture of his own book depends, Hart can be alternately encyclopedic and oddly selective, depending on how well the matters at hand convey the spirit of the period as he sees it. Thus, he omits the Smith Act but covers Edward G. Robinson’s Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and Mickey Rooney’s Young Tom Edison. He deals with Rooney’s “Andy Hardy” series but omits His Girl Friday, the adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page in which the tough newspaperman role was recast to be played by the comedienne Rosalind Russell. This was arguably the best movie of the year; certainly it provides as good an example of American insouciance as one could hope to find.

Questions of selectivity aside, when Hart is hewing to his emotional and intellectual commitment to middle-class America, From This Moment On both exerts a period charm and conveys an arresting vision of the country. But one often senses a certain muting of the book’s message. It is as if Hart felt apologetic about celebrating a year of Depression and the fall of Europe, and as a result, had grown apologetic about something else as well: the very ethos he intrepidly set out to rescue and defend.

Rather than arguing for his values, Hart has chosen for the most part to evoke them in an understated, New Yorker-ish manner. Thus he details the somewhat uncomfortable leisure of straw-hatted men strolling the boardwalk in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and the obedient, innocent pleasure of the crowds at the World’s Fair. The Fair’s theme of progress for “the people,” he briefly argues, represented a “benign” American mean between the insurgent, proletarian rhetoric of Communism and the race-asserting bombast of Nazism. The same mean is represented by Hart’s personal heroes in the book, particularly New York’s Robert Moses, builder of roads, parks, and beaches designed to serve the people by simultaneously entertaining them and elevating their taste. Yet in celebration of Moses, who like others of Hart’s heroes has been the subject of a considerable amount of liberal debunking in the intervening years, Hart says a good deal less than one might have expected.

He writes approvingly, for instance, that “Bob Moses was Jewish by extraction, but not by religion. He was a Yalie, a New Yorker, and an American.” So far have we come in our elevation of ethnicity as a supreme determinant of personal identity that such a description would probably be taken by many today as an insult all around. Yet Hart is right to remind us that there have always been many members of American ethnic groups who, like Robert Moses, have felt quite at home with native American cultural styles (albeit he neglects the titanic efforts they sometimes have had to make in order to gain acceptance). In view of the present low repute of the old melting-pot theory of America, one understands Hart’s evident reluctance to argue the case for assimilation fully—after all, as a member of the group to which the “others” were once expected to assimilate, his attitude could be taken as self-interested and patronizing. Yet the matter is too basic to Hart’s ideal vision of America for him to have treated it so casually.

Hart best conveys that vision through his accounts of sporting events. In 1940 the Cornell football team “beat” Dartmouth on a last-minute play mistakenly allowed by the referee; Cornell’s president wrote a letter turning down the victory, which was then awarded to Dartmouth. Or again, at a crucial point late in the U.S. lawn tennis final, Bobby Riggs lost a point on a technicality; his opponent, Don McNeill, purposely hit a ball out of court to even the scales. Although it is easy to sneer at these gestures as the painless noblesse of the privileged, Hart points out that “in 1940 the players were mostly successful athletes from ordinary backgrounds.” They did not inherit, they aspired to, “the graceful restraints of the gentlemen’s code.” Equally admirable were Joe Louis’s “dignity,” “innate decency,” and “chivalry,” and Joe Dimaggio’s “natural tact” and “great personal dignity in a professional game that was often raucous and rowdy.”

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The sporting ideal comes together fleetingly with politics when we read of the crowd at a benefit tennis match for embattled Finland giving former President Herbert Hoover a five-minute, anti-New Deal ovation, or of Joe Louis endorsing Wendell Willkie for the Presidency. Willkie is another of Hart’s particular heroes but in discussing him Hart’s defensiveness again comes to the surface. Thus he grants apologetically that Willkie, dubbed the country-club candidate by the acid-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “was also the overwhelming favorite of the educated middle class, the business and professional people.” Defensively, too, Hart calls Willkie a genuine “grassroots candidate in a way, swept into candidacy by a powerful national emotion about events in Europe.” That emotion was isolationism—on which, as it happens, Franklin D. Roosevelt also played in his successful campaign against Willkie. The trouble, Hart admits, is that Willkie’s isolationism was no less manipulative than Roosevelt’s. In a later vignette, after Roosevelt had made Willkie a goodwill ambassador to the Soviet Union, Hart further undercuts his hero by showing him to have been utterly naive about the realities of Stalin’s repressive rule.

As with Willkie, so with other figures of the time who would seem to have offered some alternative to the liberal ethos of the day. Just before the war, Hart recalls, “sober arguments” in favor of accommodating Japan were advanced by some, only to be ignored in the growing atmosphere of hysteria; but then Hart quickly shifts to the intolerable excesses committed by the arrogant and cruel Japanese in the Pacific. He mentions that Lindbergh led the antiwar movement “with courage and eloquence,” but then drops this version of isolationism, too. Later he begins what appears to be a partial rehabilitation of Mussolini, but ends up describing him as a “jackal” for his cynical, cowardly, and ultimately self-destructive declaration of war against England and France. In the end, ironically enough, the most commanding figure in From This Moment On proves to be Roosevelt, the aristocratic Democrat who rode to power on a wave of ethnic and machine politics.

So it is that the voice of the conservative columnist Jeffrey Hart is repeatedly muted and almost absorbed in this book by the emergent liberal heroes, liberal thought, and liberal spirit of 1940. Having chosen to treat all of these with balance and restraint—two undeniably admirable qualities of the culture he wishes to celebrate—he has ended up with a charmingly nostalgic but still tentative attempt to transform our impression of America in 1940 from a nation in the last phase of a defeating Depression into one standing at the brink of technological and cultural triumph.

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