In this breakneck review of one year of the early 20th century, author Jim Rasenberger reverses the old dictum about journalism being the first draft of history. For him, it's the last word. Rasenberger, a contributor to the New York Times, looked at every page of that paper's 1908 run and made forays into newspapers from the provinces. The result, America 1908, is a work with all the breadth and heft of, well a daily newspaper. Then as now, journalism was incapable of understanding the significance of day-to-day happenings and how important (or soon-forgot) they might be.
Of the events mentioned in the book's subtitle ( The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T, and the Making of a Modern Nation ) only the first was reported firsthand by journalists. The strange and mysterious story of Adm. Peary and Dr. Cook and the drive to the North Pole, Henry Ford's Model T, the dark years of racial apartheid Rasenberger must take from sources written long after the events of 1908. Factual depth and interpretive range never get in the way of good stories. Nor should they. The author set out to chronicle quixotic and fabulous adventures, and he does. In May, there's the appearance on the streets of Chicago of one Bertha Carlisle, wearing a tight-fitting, hip-hugging sheath dress. Late summer witnessed the famous episode of Fred Merkle, who failed to tag second base in a decisive game between the Cubs and the Giants, costing his New York club the world championship. We have a three-page account of one of President Theodore Roosevelt's point-to-point hikes through Rock Creek Park, over under, through obstacles, but never around them. Two pages follow on the return of the Great White Fleet, Roosevelt's declaration to the world of American naval superiority. The best part of the book is devoted to the Wright brothers, their invention of the airplane, and their intrepid proof to the world of the capability of what they called their machine. Here, the book soars. We are in the cockpit as the modest mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, tip the gossamer wings, climb, dip, turn and set humankind free of gravity.