Harold Evans remembers his first impression of America. It was 1956, and the then-28-year-old, a reporter and an editorial writer for England's Manchester Evening News, had arrived in New York as a recipient of a Harkness Fellowship, a two-year postgraduate program for study and travel in the United States.
" 'Find the real America,' is what they said," Evans recalls, noting that the project ultimately took him from New York to Chicago and on through the South and West--a total of 40 states. But if, in the course of his journeys, he often found himself confronting such mid-century nightmares as the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and the specter of racial discrimination, he also became utterly captivated by what he characterizes as a uniquely American kind of energy, the nation's deep-seated, if not always deserved, heroic sense of itself.
"When I first came here," Evans says, "I came from a country that was gray with austerity. And it seemed to me that New York was populated by fascinating people--Damon Runyon in every bar, and every taxi driver was Groucho Marx. I lived with a guy who made a fortune making metal coat hangers. He played Bach all the time in his apartment, and it seemed a very civilized life."
Forty-two years later, Evans is still compelled by the energy of America--he became a citizen in 1993--even as he remains the very model of an English gentleman himself. At 70, the former president and publisher of Random House presents a rather formal persona, dressed in a tailored three-piece suit and speaking in the low tones and oddly hesitant manner of the British educated class. He's pursued something of a roundabout process to arrive at such a posture; the son of a train driver, Evans benefited from the nascent strains of postwar English democracy, working his way up to the editorship of the Times of London before moving to this country in 1984 with his wife, former Vanity Fair and New Yorker Editor Tina Brown.
The Product of
a Decade's work
Now editorial director of U.S. News & World Report, the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Daily News, he has finally crystallized his fascination with the United States in a new book, "The American Century" (Random House), a 20th century history of his adopted homeland, lavishly illustrated with more than 900 photographs, on which he's been working, more or less steadily, for better than 10 years.
At first glance, the idea of an Englishman fixated on America seems somewhat incongruous, as if Evans had gone through the looking glass and never returned. The time-honored model, after all, is that of the American in thrall to continental culture. Yet while this attitude remains prevalent, there's a lesser known counter-tradition in which a European observer is transformed by America, going back to Alexis de Tocqueville's early 19th century masterwork "Democracy in America" and extending to such modern observers as Alistair Cooke. "The American Century" tells the story of America's ascendancy to world-power status episodically, in almost a newsmagazine format, relying on short snippets of text, enhanced by related sidebars that portray history as diverse and accessible at the same time.
A Popular History
in Digestible Chunks
"I certainly didn't think I was doing de Tocqueville," Evans admits. "I set out not to do a book of generalized insights, but to do a book which actually told stories, and then pulled them together in 15 unifying essays. I had an idea I should try and write a popular history, presented in segments so people could dip in and out of it, rather than something along continuous themes."
While Evans has lived in the United States long enough to dispel the notion that "The American Century" is nothing more than the musings of an outsider looking in, he does focus on several themes that have special resonance because of his background as an Englishman. One is freedom of speech, which, from his perspective, is a particularly potent right.
"You have to have had the experience as searingly and burningly as I have," he notes with a rueful smile, "to realize that there is a dramatic difference between England and the United States. Most Americans see the debates in Parliament, or hear somebody at Hyde Park Corner attacking the queen, and England seems to be the freest country in the world. But I must have been in the High Court three or four times every year, arguing for freedom of the press."
Still more important is the role of individuality in the development of national identity, although Evans sees this as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's a source of America's essential optimism.
"You need optimism," he suggests, "to leave your native land and come to a strange country." At the same time, he is concerned by the rise of "identity politics," which, he thinks, may ultimately leave American identity itself in disarray.