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The Birth of the American Foreign Correspondent

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In 1928, the then six-year-old Soviet Union embarked on its first five-year plan and held its first major political show trial. Leon Trotsky was exiled to Central Asia, a grain crisis led to rapid industrialization, and the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow, denounced social democracy as a form of fascism. It was during the summer of that year that John Gunther, a twenty-six-year-old Illinois-born foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, was assigned to Moscow. Gunther found it nearly impossible to understand the state formed by Vladimir Lenin’s proletarian revolution. But, as he had to drop off something, he took notes: that there were no sidewalk cafes and hardly any lampposts, that the crowd was crowding around the loudspeakers to listen to the news, that the woman in his hotel offered him a cigarette, and that the servants now ate alongside the families they served. After weeks of this, he finally cooked up a story called “Lively evenings mark life in the Russian capital.” As he settled into the five-month assignment, his dispatches included the likes of “Wear blue shirts to the Moscow Opera” and “Russia Land of many paradoxes.”

It is precisely this type of newsgathering that Evelyn Waugh mocked in her satirical novel “Scoop”, which Wenlock Jakes, a swaggering American journalist, is partly based on Gunther. Jakes, we are told, once overslept and drove to the wrong Balkan capital – a peaceful city rather than a war zone – and nevertheless “told a thousand-word story about the barricades in the streets, the burning churches, the machine guns responding to the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, discarded in the deserted road below his window. Waugh perceived the emerging American style of hoarding details when you have no idea what’s going on.

Despite his analytical shortcomings, Gunther’s career took off like a hot air balloon. He has reported on nearly every European country, talked foreign affairs with FDR, and written a series of best-selling world affairs books. He was one of the leading American foreign correspondents to emerge in the freewheeling period between the two world wars, which covered the world on the eve of American hegemony with a distinctive mix of reporting and personal impressions.

These reporters are the subjects of historian Deborah Cohen’s “Last Call at the Imperial”, a loose group portrait of the foreign correspondents who helped define the profession as we know it today. They were the merchants of the lost generation, compared to its better-known novelists and poets, although the journalists were also giant figures in their time. Dorothy Thompson, a renowned columnist whose life was fictionalized in a Katharine Hepburn comedy, “Woman of the Year”, was the first American journalist deported from Nazi Germany and also informed FDR’s refugee policy . HR Knickerbocker, a native of Yoakum, Texas, won the third Pulitzer Prize for ‘correspondence’ in 1931 – a precursor to today’s Pulitzer of ‘international reporting’ – and opposed the Nazi propaganda chief , Joseph Goebbels, for his powerful reporting. (He was known to his friends and referred to throughout this book as Knick.) They are joined by two journalists from the Midwest who were only a year apart at the University of Chicago: John Gunther and Vincent Sheean, the last of whom shot to fame at the age of thirty-five for his memoir, “Personal History”, which intertwined his journalistic impressions of the world with his own reflections on the anomie of between -two wars. The last major character is Frances Gunther, née Fineman, a left-wing Jewish writer and polemicist who married and had children with John Gunther.

John Gunther and Sheean came from what Cohen calls the country’s “provincial heartland,” Illinois. They were middle class and didn’t go to elite boarding schools, but they had direct access to great books, in Cohen’s memorable formulation, through the same consumer channels that brought Model Ts into their small American towns. Both men attended the University of Chicago during Chicago’s so-called Renaissance, when the city was home to the likes of Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg, and both blazed with a desire to write, even though they lacked political convictions. or strong ideologies. They, along with Knickerbocker, sought adventure above all else in their journalistic escapades.

In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s mother, a former serf, was interviewed by American journalist HR Knickerbocker. Photograph by Getty

These writers all hit at a time when U.S. foreign offices still had fluid standards and brave stringers could squeeze their way into almost any beat. Frances Gunther, for example, simply flew to Moscow in 1924, even though she had “never worked for a newspaper and no publisher had sent her there”, but quickly landed articles in the new york Times. John Gunther and Knick started out as inveterate reporters in American newsrooms and brought that sensibility to Europe, with a knack for well-turned folk comparison. Mahatma Gandhi, John Gunther reported after meeting him in 1938, was an “amazing combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall and your father”.

Reportage was the “most representative form of writing of their day”, as Thompson reflected in a 1939 essay titled “Writing Contemporary History”. Foreign correspondence techniques were used by novelists and philosophers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus, and a number of political figures who shaped their period, including Trotsky and Benito Mussolini, got their start as than journalists. The predominant form of the foreign correspondent was that of the view from the ground, as opposed to the experimental techniques of new journalism or the more complex long-form narratives of today. With the exception of a few episodes in conflict zones in places like Spain and Syria, Cohen’s subjects were not primarily war correspondents, but a cross between modern pundits and heads of foreign bureaus. . And, although the group described in the book made their mark on three continents, covering the world more often than not meant covering Europe.

“Last Call” is as effervescent, for more than four hundred pages, as its seductive, hyperactive characters, and it mixes scholarly attention to ideas like psychoanalysis and Wilsonian liberal internationalism with romantic renditions of these writers’ dizzying trajectories. abroad. Group biographies sometimes fail to freeze, but the members of this cohort actually had deeply intertwined lives. The main action jumps from character to character over three decades. Sheean and John Gunther often appeared in the same scenes, from Palestine to Vienna; John Gunther had an affair with Knickerbocker’s wife while writing the foreword to one of his books; Knickerbocker started as Thompson’s assistant; and Sheean wrote an entire book about the marriage of Thompson and American novelist Sinclair Lewis. Celebrity cameos abound like Virginia Woolf (since Sheean mixed with and had affairs with the Bloomsbury band), Jawaharlal Nehru (a Frances Gunther pen pal) and Rebecca West (a sort of fairy godmother to John Gunther in England). In order to create some intimacy with this group of globetrotters, Cohen insists on referring to each main character by their first name, which can make the book difficult to follow in its early chapters.

The book is less in depth on the actual writing produced by its subjects. Their major works are too often paraphrased without illuminating excerpts: Sheean’s “Personal History,” for example, is hard to grasp like the literary feel we are told. Amid mountains of personal detail, descriptions of their competent reporting – like Knickerbocker’s investigation into Nazis hiding assets abroad, or John Gunther’s discovery of evidence of “millions of marks the Germans had spent on propaganda in Austria” – are sometimes surprising.

But what is most important about these characters, which the author notes in the prologue and epilogue, is that they were all Americans overseas while the United States was still in its ” stumbling global ascendancy”. The role of the foreign correspondent will change radically after the Second World War. “As the United States sought to exert its dominance on a global scale, remaking the world to measure, foreign correspondents became more entangled in this project, either as critics or as sympathizers,” writes Cohen. But, for this lot, their impressions and advocacy were a little less loaded. They rarely had a thorough knowledge of foreign countries or languages ​​before going abroad; Thompson’s hard-earned German remained “ungrammatical” well into the wartime 1940s. The Chicago boys, even more naive to begin with, were empty vessels, learning the world as they wrote about it.

Is being an empty vase an asset for the foreign correspondent? And does having strong convictions, especially political ones, harm journalistic objectivity? These questions are a major undercurrent of this book and are most electrically animated in the romantic and professional partnership between John and Frances Gunther. Cohen uses a wealth of archival material on these two letters, diaries and, in the Freudian cast of their time, dream journals and analytic session notes, and maps their debates on seminal world events unfolding around of them.

John and Frances first met in Paris, in 1925. John was from a German-American family on the north side of Chicago, and was the son of a seedy businessman and doting mother ; Frances was born in 1897 to Jewish immigrants who ran fabric stores and convenience stores in uptown Manhattan. She attended Barnard in 1916, where she became secretary-treasurer of the Socialist Club. After dropping out or being expelled from three consecutive universities, while hanging out with such prominent left-wing figures as Dorothy Day, she finally graduated from Barnard at the age of twenty-four. The Gunthers married in 1927, less than three years after Frances arrived in Moscow. Their first child, Judy, tragically died aged just a few months in 1929, and their second, Johnny, was born later that year. After that, Frances did much of her reporting vicariously, through messages from her husband.