Harold Evans defines freedom, American styleIn 1956, some 75 years after Oscar Wilde arrived in America declaring to customs officials nothing but his genius, Harold Evans crossed the Atlantic and announced what would later prove an unwaning curiosity.
The recipient of a Harkness Commonwealth Fund fellowship,a means by which European journalists could experience the real America, Evans began a 40-state odyssey that confirmed and contradicted impressions of the states he received during his years in England. While his first stop, Manhattan, delivered all the color and chaos of its reputation, places such as Paris, Illinois, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, revealed quieter but no less engaging features of the nation's character to the wide-eyed Evans. He spent two years observing and chronicling this protean country while studying at Stanford and the University of Chicago. Evans then returned to England to begin a distinguished career as a journalist, unaware that he had started what would become The American Century. While sundry, odd details of rural and urban 1950's America left their mark on Evans, the incongruities of character and place particularly in an evolving civil rights movement strayed from, but never abandoned, a particular ideal: freedom. This book can be traced back to that initial visit to the United States, and my witnessing the striking degree of freedom made available to each individual, explains the dapper, somewhat disheveled Evans during a recent interview in Boston. Then, as now, I was impressed by the expansiveness of American freedom and the extent to which many Americans overlooked the importance of this freedom a freedom that lies at the heart of this country, a freedom that necessitates responsibility. Freedom provides the focus for Evans's peopled, often poetic narrative of what he sees as America's century: 1889 (the country's centennial) through 1989 (the close of the Cold War); this particular segment is chosen because America, forged in the smithy of much controversy and debate during these years, formed an enduring and unique brand of freedom.
America, unlike England, fulfilled the promise of the 18th century's leading English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, avers Evans. He stated that there could be no Ôprior restraint,' that the essence of freedom is to be able to say or do, then to suffer or enjoy the consequences. Blackstone's doctrine was fully absorbed here by Thomas Jefferson and others, but lost sight of in England, where prior restraint became the norm, where the government could stop the press from publishing something and often did. But in the United States things were dramatically different. Take the 1931 Supreme Court case of Near v. Minnesota, a defense of freedom of speech and press whose repercussions are felt here to this date. The ideal of freedom was maintained despite the dishonorable men who chose to invoke it. Animated, Evans abandons his mug of chili to locate the case in The American Century. After a moment's flipping through its 700 pages, he finds it. Here we go. I quote Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes: ÔThe rights of the best of men are secured only as the rights of the vilest and most abhorrent are protected.' Evans pauses, relishing the sentiment and the language, then adds with a measure of incredulity, America was truer to the original jurisprudence of Blackstone than the English. And this regard for freedom transcends issues of publishing and free speech; it shapes a national attitude and explains an international appeal. The trials endured by the immigrants that chose to respond to such an appeal shape much of the narrative of The American Century. Between 1900 and 1910, nine million people came from abroad, just about the entire population of the country in 1820, writes Evans. New York had more Italians than Rome, more Jews than Warsaw, more Irish than Dublin . . . Not content with the view from the tower, Evans zooms in to locate the human tale the numbers obscure. Particularly striking is his telling of the way immigration inspectors greeted those arriving at Castle Garden seeking citizenship. Each inspector had a piece of chalk with which he would mark the back of the newly arrived: X for feebleminded, H for heart problem, L for limp, explains Evans, before citing the indelible contributions to America made by those from other shores: Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Irving Berlin, Andrew Carnegie, just to name a few. Evans traces his sympathy for the misjudged outsider to the cruel lampooning of his father by England's prime minister.
For 50 years my father worked for the railroad, recalls Evans. One time in his life, in the early '50s, he participated in a strike, hoping to secure the pension he never had. I remember vividly turning on the television in those early days of T.
V., only to witness the prime minister discussing communism and describing my father in terms that suggested he was a threat to Western civilization.
Since then I have always read history with a healthy measure of skepticism. I recoil from all simple-minded explanations. Attempting to get at truth means rejecting stereotypes and cliches. Emboldened, Evans adds, Actions are always more complex and nuanced than they seem. We have to be willing to wrestle with paradox in pursuing understanding. A central paradox in Evans's telling of America's century involves the degree to which the nation's ever-evolving identity oscillates between prizing the individual and the collective, somehow accommodating both.
Throughout America's young history there has been a necessary tension between the individual and the group, says Evans. The commonplace image of the cowboy on the horse representing individualism was just as important, in my view, or more important than the collective circle of the covered wagons, a metaphor for community.
Evans understands well the trying relationship between the individual and the collective. From 1967-1981, as editor of the Sunday Times, he redefined the standards of investigative journalism, clashing with government and industry to reveal deceit and corruption. His publication of Labor Minister Richard Crossman's diaries threw a klieg light on the shady world of British politics, and his exposing of the distributors of the harmful drug Thalidomide spared many children birth defects. He counts these accomplishments among his finest. I am proud of the work my very able staff and I accomplished during those years at the Sunday Times, Evans says.
Claimed by the past for a moment, he breaks the silence to elaborate.
Though I am rather hopeful that the next time you ask me to comment on the influence of my work, I'll mention first The American Century. I didn't write the book to be influential, however. I wrote it to tell a story, to tell many stories. Other people must draw their own inferences from it. Ron Fletcher teaches and writes outside of Boston.