The Victory Album
Reflections on the Good Life after the Good War
Philip D. Beidler
Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2010
Hardcover. $29.95. 272 p. ISBN-13: 978-0817316846
Reviewed by Mark Meigs
Université Denis-Diderot Paris VII
It is easiest to admire what Philip D. Beidler set out to do in this book. He says he wants to bid farewell to the culture of the United States of “The American Century,” a phrase he uses in relation to Henry Luce, but implies in its larger sense referring to the rightness of the American way of happy consumerism and the entitlement of victorious, post-1945 Americans to that happy way. Robert Graves, who Beidler admires, did this for the British Empire up to and including World War One in Goodbye to All That, his highly personal book of 1929, that in spite of its limited point of view, has become an emblematic summing up of the British side of World War I and a conscious farewell to pre-war imperial “Pomp and Circumstance,” but also to pre-war ways of loving, living, learning, playing and keeping a stiff upper lip. Mr. Beidler goes to some length in the conclusion of his own book to discover what exactly that of Grave’s title is. In me he has a reader who has read Graves's book a number of times and can recognize Graves in Beidler’s nicely phrased reference to “scorn and rueful affection” for a past that “once strangely seemed to have meant so much.” It is time, Beidler wants to say, for Americans to put World War II to rest. The United States won it along with the British. There were contributions from the soon jettisoned Soviet ally as well. But paradigms change. Cigarettes, alcohol, big cars and early rock and roll each get a chapter here, as does the bland protestant-dominated ecumenicalism which tolerated all difference by ignoring details and absorbed all comers in a church picnic bonhomie. All of it, according to Beidler, was part of an expectation of rewards and rightness built into the generation born right after the war. Now it should fade away, the way old soldiers fade away, by becoming the subjects of history.
In a fine example of overspending credit earned in World War II, General Douglas MacArthur, the author of the “fade away” phrase, gets revived here as a “scary,” “bizarre” and fortunately failed presidential hopeful trying to convert his Pacific War reputation into the great political prize in every presidential election from 1944 to 1952. At the Republican National Convention of 1952, in civilian clothes after his dismissal by President Truman from command in the Korean War, he delivered the keynote address. It was a botched last attempt, along with plans for a nuclear showdown, to obtain the Republican nomination. Beidler remembers him, though he cannot locate the words of the speech in question. He reminds us of the general’s accomplishments and darker potentialities, and bids him good riddance in his gilded retirement at the Waldorf Astoria. Beidler and the American voters had the good sense to prefer General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, not incidentally in this book, had the good sense to “fade away” to a more modest retirement in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Beidler’s hometown.
It is harder to admire Beidler’s method, conclusions, or to understand for whom this book was intended. Robert Graves stuck to being honest about what he had experienced without a lot of fuss about larger historical perspectives. The reader was expected to supply the history from somewhere else. The result was touching and surprising and brave. Surely it was brave, in 1929, to admit to a boarding school romance with another boy and to admit to a near break down in the trenches of the Great War caused as much by news of the boy’s infidelity back at school as any present horrors. Poor Graves served as an officer, a responsible man by title, but still nearly a boy by age and sentimental experience. It was surprising to read, and brave to have written, about retiring from a sinecure teaching English in Cairo. No muddling along in a bad if easy job, floating on the privileges of Empire for boat-burning Graves. Out of the juxtaposition of personal experience of the end of Empire a general reader who only understood World War One as the curtain raiser of twentieth-century horror and disorder, can yet understand how a historical paradigm can come to an end when a thoughtful witness can no longer believe in it. That is why Goodbye to All That has been a perennial staple in the undergraduate European History curriculum.
Maybe Beidler had a more difficult job because, brought up on television and radio, he navigated between memory of what he actually experienced and what was simply the media and cultural environment around him. His model, Robert Graves, had belonged to a world and class that could pretend there was no difference between culture and experience. In Beidler, as a result, there are post-war memories he did not quite experience that he gives up, and some others he did experience that he cannot quite relinquish. MacArthur goes to the scrap heap, but smiling Ike Eisenhower keeps his place; the Protestant ecumenical movement gets discredited, but an American dedication to Zionist Israel somehow gets a chapter that encases that post World War Two commitment in an incorruptible shield for all time. Beidler gives us the more or less conscious workings of his mind trying to make sense of his culture and history, fractured between media and experience. Facts and events, significant on some visceral level to the author, but furthest from his life, get footnotes. There are few of these. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s laconic message announcing the end of World War Two in Europe gets this treatment. The book quotes the important sentence twice, each time with the same footnote. The author was born in October 1944, so he can have had no personal experience of the event. At the other end of the experience spectrum he writes, “I was there,” to underline the importance of the event or of himself or of the strange juxtapositions of his life and times. This more frequent treatment includes his Father’s sudden death, dated and timed to the minute, the Newport Jazz festival when Bob Dylan sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” unaccompanied (no date), and shagging golf balls in Gettysburg for the retired Dwight D. Eisenhower, mentioned several times, with affection for the great man (but no telling quote, like “Thanks sonny,” and no date).
Events and phenomena in between these extremes of eyewitness and book learned accounts of memory get various qualifications whose significance is hard to determine but that give the impression that Beidler does not quite remember the event but thinks he and we should: “few now remember…” or “…that does call back the era, wherever one lived during the times, roughly speaking…” or “Equally telling, but apocryphal…” This may be a matter of style. Beidler’s diction has at times the breathless quality of charming debutantes just after World War Two: lots of “rather,” and in a memorable sentence about his on-again-off-again relationship to popular culture as he navigates between what he saw at the time, what he has seen since and what he has read about, “nor did I go to but an utter bare handful of movies…” It might be laziness: he does not want to find out if the story was apocryphal or not; he does not wish to pin down the dates or exact geography of radio broadcasts. But I think it is also a genuine symptom of what happens when an author sets out to do what Beidler set out to do. He says he is staking out
a larger landscape of remembering somewhere between personal memory and cultural reflection… to register a sense of what happened—what it felt like to be a person living in the world at the time; a fairly average young American of the era, if not representative, certainly typical—and couple it with a larger, historically informed sense of how it has been frequently remembered and mythologized by the larger culture. [267-8]
Coupling imprecision about his own point of view, “if not representative, certainly typical,” with a refusal to pin down how anything has been “frequently remembered,” makes it impossible for the general reader to understand very much beyond the enthusiasm of the author for key events of the times Beidler has lived through and to put together a list of topics and notions for further research.
This may be Beidler’s intention. The style and material may be an invitation to undergraduates to go do their own work on subjects pointed to here. There are pages that are very nearly lists: black athletes accepted into the major leagues; music hits and artists that mean something to the author and to music history; major, minor and all terrible, events of the Korean War; and on and on. A general reader may be able to recognize works, people or events that he or she wants to know more about. Maybe the enthusiasm of this list making will excite that curiosity. But so many dates are missing, so many inclusions or exclusions seem arbitrary, the index so inadequate—missing some obvious entries, not giving all the pages for others—that a reader who starts out knowing something of the times and had hoped Mr. Beidler would have organized this chunk of the past in a way to make it useful, will be frustrated. What does it mean, for example, in a chapter about African American contributions to American culture and history that “Showboat was too old for me. Ditto Paul Robeson”?  The author here was too young for Douglas MacArthur too, but he put together some information.
It may be that Beidler intends his book for people exactly like himself. When writing about the Vietnam War, for example, he quotes or paraphrases a contemporary (there are no quotation marks and there is no name nor qualifying phrase): “there is a wall ten miles wide and a hundred miles high between those of us who went to Vietnam and those who didn’t and it is never coming down.”  In his last chapter, Beidler makes parallels between Vietnam and its effects on his generation and World War I and what it did to Graves’s and I remember Graves expressing his great pleasure during his long exile in Majorca from everything British of long discussions about World War One with other veterans excluding other categories of men. Maybe listing common impressions, for Beidler, from the past once more can be a way of bidding them farewell while indulging in their familiarity with the Vietnam brethren. But those who went, and certainly those who went from a middle or upper middle-class background and education like Beidler’s, were a tiny minority at the time. Many cohorts have come along since and what will they make of that high wall or this book?
Cercles © 2011