March 4th, 2008
01:08 PM ET

Back to the Future


I have always been fascinated by the Turn of the Century.  Not this one.  The last one.  Though I am no historian, I am a believer in that old truism, first given to us by poet and philosopher George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Certainly that is true of the worst of human experience – war, economic hardship, famine, disease.  But I have always about the flip-side.  If we study our glory days - our successes and the greatest men and women who have come before us - can we draw upon that greatness to create a new Golden Age or, more to the point, perpetrate the one already ushered in for us? 

That is why I read, with great anticipation, Jim Rasenberger’s new book America 1908.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  Through the prism of one remarkable year, a hundred years ago, we see a lesson for our own new century.  1908 reveals a country that seems to stumbled into the new era that America would ultimately dominate.  The lesson is one of possibility, ingenuity, perseverance and courage.  We encounter, throughout the book, Teddy Roosevelt – who embodied all of those.  We meet his successor, William Howard Taft, who embodied none.  There is Henry Ford, who invented the Model T and with it a new American freedom. There are the explorers - trying to reach North Pole. The Wright brothers take country (and ultimately and the world) into the air with implications that even they could not fully appreciate. Of course the stars of 1908 and of history are the extraordinary Americans. 

But here is the best thing about America 1908:  Jim Rasenberger fills in the spaces between the big events and important people with smaller, no less significant stories.  This is what is so very compelling about his approach to history (as it was in his last book, High Steel).  Ordinary people matter – African Americans caught up in a bloody race riot; ordinary women who challenge Victorian morality with their cigarettes and clingy Parisian fashions; the Wright brothers’ devoted sister without whom much of their success would not have been possible; a single boy on a bicycle. 

2008 is passing quickly. What will we accomplish?  The first woman president?  The first African American?   Who can imagine what new technologies will be born, or new application of the “old” ones.  What will the year 2108 bring us?" As the New York World wondered a hundred years ago, "What marvels of development await the youth of tomorrow?" As Thomas Edison said later that year, "Anything, everything is possible."  Read America 1908 and you will believe it too. 

– Jami Floyd, “In Session” Anchor/360° Contributor

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