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Shaping the 20th Century
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Shaping the 20th Century
Angela V. John. War, Journalism and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century: The Life and Times of Henry W. Nevinson. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006. xvii + 246 pp. $45.00

To understand the significance for his time of the now almost forgotten writer brought before us by Angela John, one must imagine the decades at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries in which newspapers were the sole source of the latest news, in which the writers of newspaper leaders and "middles" were almost as well known, at least by educated readers, as television news anchors are today, in which reporters depended much less on government briefings than on firsthand investigations, and in which the style that a journalist commanded was of major importance. Imagine that time when war correspondents, hired by a particular newspaper for a specific mission, were often essentially freelance writers who more often than not walked or rode horseback wherever they chose to go amidst the battles. Imagine those years in which the censorship of war correspondents was less effective because the writers often said exactly what they wanted to say in widely read articles or books as soon as they returned from their assignments. Then also call to mind a period in which the English suffragist movement, though still thwarted, was gaining strength, and political unrest was developing in India, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

One may then picture the arrival in such a milieu of a writer with a classical education, a Hellenist who could write short stories, poems, essays, and literary biographies as readily as newspaper columns, who was an admirer of both Ruskin and Carlyle as well as Goethe, Herder, and Schiller, and who saw world events against the background of ancient and biblical history. Picture a correspondent who seems to have cherished the considerable dangers and difficulties he encountered on or near battlefield after battlefield despite recurrent illnesses and who always put being at the scene of the action above personal comfort or safety. Add that this writer was a strong supporter of the suffragist movement, was always ready to criticize officials with whom he disagreed, however important they might have been, was by nature [End Page 96] for the underdog, and, to paraphrase a current bumper sticker, loved his country but generally mistrusted its government.

The result of the confluence of the time and the man was the life of Henry Woodd Nevinson (1856–1941). Angela John's piecing together of that life from a variety of sources, although considerably aided by the almost fifty years of diaries kept by Nevinson, was a major endeavor. John has chosen to focus her biography primarily on Nevinson's life as a writer reporting wars and crises. That was the career that made his name widely known, the activity that he preferred, even though he did not become a war correspondent until he was forty. He covered the 1897 Graeco–Turkish War, the 1898 Spanish–American War, the 1899–1902 Anglo–Boer War (he was among those trapped in Ladysmith but had real sympathy for the Boers), the 1905 Revolution in Russia, the unrest in India in 1907, the 1909 campaign against the Riff in Spain, the 1912 and 1913 Balkan Wars, the Irish struggle for independence as it developed after 1919, and the First World War, including the disastrous campaign in the Dardanelles. In between he was exposing slavery in the Portuguese colonies (his personal investigation required facing major dangers and physical obstacles), championing the suffragist movement (in 1909 Nevinson resigned his position with the Daily News over suffrage issues), representing the Macedonian Relief Committee in Albania, reporting from Germany that the measures taken to punish the German people after WWI were laying the groundwork for further hostilities, defending the Irish people's desire for self-government, defending conscientious objectors, speaking at many a public meeting—and writing thirty books. Among individuals whom he sought to defend were Roger Casement and Eugene Debs; among the events he deplored were the officially sanctioned murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington (the Irish patriot), Russian repression in Georgia, the condemnation of Oscar Wilde, and the Nazi...