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A striking image of an American dustbowl
'The American Century'

Evans' epic recounts the story of a nation

Web posted on: EST

Friday, November 13, 1998 5:03:32 PM

By CNN Interactive Books Editor
Jonathan D. Austin

ATLANTA (CNN) -- It's a big book that recounts an epic tale. It's also a love story from one man to his adopted country.

"The American Century" tells the unique story of modern America -- how diverse people with different beliefs, languages and ideals came together to forge a democratic world power that remains the beacon of freedom the world over.

View some other images of "The American Century"

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"The purpose of the book is to see what happened to America; both to the people in it, and to its relationships with the rest of the world," says author Harold Evans, who got his first glimpse of America in 1956 as an English journalist and academic fellow.

Speaking recently at the Atlanta History Center, Evans said the 700-plus page work came about out of his respect and love for a nation's people, places and ideals.

"When I first came to the United States in 1956 I fell in love with things -- mainly the vitality and the freedoms," he said. "Every taxi driver was Groucho Marx, and the bars were filled with Damon Runyon characters."

During that first visit he was also able to meet people who had made the past century; people who pushed the growth of the nation, and people who suffered under the heavy tread of that growth. He met and corresponded with the last surviving member of Geronimo's tribe, and traveled through the South in the wake of the Brown school desegregation ruling.

Soundbites from Harold Evans

Evans on "The Bible of Photojournalism"
445k MPEG-3 or 815k WAV

"It's a love story..."
170k MPEG-3 or 305k WAV

Pictures and words:
270k MPEG-3 or 490k WAV

The purpose of the book:
390k MPEG-3 or 715k WAV

Evans on religion in America:
315k MPEG-3 or 580k WAV

Evans on the short stories in his book:
580k MPEG-3 or 1Mb WAV

Evans on what he reads:
540k MPEG-3 or 995k WAV

In his book, Evans, who reached the pinnacle of British journalism as editor of "The Sunday Times" and "The Times" in London, chronicles a century of progress and pitfalls for the growing nation. The result of heavy research and tight editing, the work offers insight into hundreds of events and people that shaped today's America.

"It's a story of terrific heroism (with) many, many dramatic stories of individuals," Evans said. "In 1889, America was 62 million people, it has conquered a continent, and it is looking inward. Britain is the biggest power in the world, still, and there are very few people in the American armed forces.

"By the end of this century, of course, America is the dominant world power, economically and militarily, and it has not only enlarged the freedoms of its own citizens -- which was very circumscribed in 1889 -- but by 1989 it has enlarged the freedoms of millions and millions of people around the world."

Compact stories make reading easy

Evans, a former president of Random House trade group, used more than 900 photographs to show how millions of people -- most of them immigrants -- made the 20th century become "The American Century." And he wrote with a particular manner, enticing the reader to come back again and again to hear a unique American tale.

"We're all told that people are busy, and have short attention spans, and yet these stories are so marvelous, and really ought to be read," Evans said.

Citizens mourn at FDR's funeral procession

His stories are tightly packaged and concise; most are contained on one page. "I was worried that if I started and jumped all over the page, people might not turn the page," Evans said. "And I wanted to organize things in modular units, so you could just read a single spread and get enough sustenance from it ..."

He also wanted to not link unrelated events by just putting them side by side in the book. "I wanted to avoid what I call 'the false segue' -- the attempt to move from a lynching in Indiana to a prohibition saloon. There's no connection you can see between them, and yet, if you're writing a history ... you get a kind of cornucopia effect, in which everything gets kind of confusing."

Evans used each page to bring a time, event or person into focus.

"It would be much better if we took discrete incidences and personal losses, wrote about them, and made sure that every single word tells. So I was in enormous pains in writing this book; I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it to make sure there was no fat, that every word would carry you along. And I put in it little reference points to some of the intellectual arguments in the (accompanying) essays, so that when you read them, you pick up some of the thought that was in the essays."

900 photographs also tell the story

But words don't carry the weight alone; the hundreds of photographs he included cause any reader to pause and consider. That is no surprise, since Evans is the author of the 1978 classic textbook "Pictures on a Page," a seminal work that taught a generation of newspaper editors how to use images to tell the story.

"I don't think the pictures and words can be separated," Evans said. "If you get an amazing photograph, like the dust clouds blowing over a small town in Kansas, it's not enough to look at the picture; (the readers) want to know, 'How did this happen, that half the farming soil of a whole state is blown away?' And then you want to know, 'Well, what happened to the people, and what kind of condition were they in? It's in the middle of the '30s, and most of them were unemployed, and how did they get out of it? Why didn't the politicians act sooner?'"

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