The Corner

The Way It Was

Today on the homepage, we continue with my series on John Dos Passos. In this installment, we have him mainly in the Soviet Union (1928). What he has to say, of course, is timeless.

I thought I would offer something extra here in the Corner. Dos Passos makes a statement about what life was like in America before World War I. The British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote a well-known passage about Britain, or England: about the relationship between an Englishman and the state before World War I. I could not quite recall it — I did not have the words to let Google lead me to it — but Sir Charles Cooke did.

Taylor’s passage begins,

Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission.

To read the rest, go here (for example).

Okay, here is Dos Passos:

It’s hard to overestimate the revulsion wrought by the first world war in the minds of a generation that had grown up in the years of comparative freedom and comparative peace that opened the century. It’s hard to remember in the middle fifties today that in those years what little military service there was in America was voluntary, that taxes were infinitesimal, that if you could scrape up the price of a ticket you could travel anywhere in the world except through Russia and Turkey, without saying boo to a bureaucrat. If you wanted to take a job it was nobody’s business but yours and the boss’s. Of course, as the labor people were busily pointing out, if you worked in a sweat shop for a pittance and happened to starve to death in the process it was nobody’s business either. When Woodrow Wilson led the country into the European war, however little we approved of this reversal of American tradition, most of us just out of college were crazy to see what war was like.

Finally, a tidbit: A. J. P. Taylor was David Pryce-Jones’s tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford. But he appalled David, so the young man switched to Raymond Carr, the historian of Spain. Carr died last year at 96. Another historian, Bernard Lewis (a friend of David’s, and a friend of National Review’s), turns 100 this month.


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