Book Review: The Brazen Age
by David Reid
David Reid’s big, boisterous, and densely-packed new book The Brazen Age takes as its main subject the New York City of the postwar era from 1945 to 1950; Reid presents his readers with “at heart an interpretive historical essay, mostly along old-fashioned literary and political lines” and fills the account with all the raucous activity and outsized personalities of America’s signature city in its years of victory.
It’s a sprawling, ungainly panorama, the portrait of a New York City growing directly out of the city captured in Weegee’s 1945 Naked City, so enthusiastically described here:
With its bloody crime scenes and car crashes, petty criminals, oblivious socialites, lewd women, dead men, transvestites in paddy wagons, glassy-eyed drunks, freaks, tenement fires, race riots, mean streets, and more dead bodies – a landscape of big-city melodrama lit up by the flash of Speed Graphic and captioned in seen-it-all sentimental-hardboiled three-dot prose – Naked City might have provoked what Oscar Wilde called the rage of Caliban at seeing his face in the glass. Instead, Gotham experienced a pleasurable shock of recognition at seeing its crimes, follies, and misfortunes so vividly rendered in inglorious black-and-white. It was, people realized, a peculiar kind of love letter, dedicated (as it was) “To You, the People of New York.”
Reid ranges his story over the whole spectrum of American life in his “Brazen Age,” drawing portraits from the worlds of politics, art, law, science, architecture, and social issues, and he infuses his narrative with such energy wit that it all hangs together marvelously as a cultural adventure story. He has a distinct flair for character studies, filling his portraits of such disparate figures as Shostakovich, Stieglitz, Tennessee Williams, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, George Kennan, and Ernest Hemingway with choice quotes and some very convincing insights, and his picture of the seedy vibrancy of Greenwich Village is utterly masterful throughout.
In a book so rich with the colorful personalities of postwar America, it’s curious but perhaps inevitable that one of the most prominent here is the dimwitted hayseed war criminal who oversaw “the Brazen Age” from the Oval Office. Far too often, bird-beaked dead-eyed President Harry Truman bestrides Reid’s story like a colossus in a cheap pinstriped suit:
The same qualities that made him unfit for the presidency enhanced his appeal as an endearingly plainspoken and long-lived ex-president whose straightforwardness and lack of swank gained by way of contrast with his more grandiose successors. Once out of office, the triumph of 1948 having been followed by the quagmire of Korea, as unapproved (though not as despised) as any president since Hoover, or possibly John Quincy Adams – an almost as lightly regarded by most of the political class as Warren G. Harding – Truman is now ranked by historians and political scientists in the tier of “near-great” presidents, just below the “greats” (Washington, Lincoln, FDR), putting him in the proximity of Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, James K. Polk, and Woodrow Wilson: previous American caesars whom, respectively, he admired, disparaged, had nothing much to say about, and idolized.
The screeching halt to which Reid’s narrative comes at that flatly bewildering mention of the late lamented President Polk is unmistakable, but it’s a very rare interruption in an otherwise smoothly flowing and hugely readable work of popular history about a period in American history too often swept into the anteroom of the larger narrative of the 1950s.