Program looks back a century Review: 'America 1900' examines the forces and historical events that would shape a century.

November 18, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

America at its last turn of the century was "a big, raw boy, full of robust energy and growing pains." Americans, "exulted by the possibilities" of their country, lived in a world where "cynicism and self-pity were not in style."

Thus speaks narrator David McCullough -- and does this guy have the greatest voice in America or what? -- at the opening of "America 1900," tonight's entertainingly ironic 11th-season opener of "The American Experience."

In just over 100 years, the United States had turned itself from colony to colonial power, from a nation dependent on an overseas king to a country on the brink of becoming a dominant force in world politics. Led by a president who had just steered the country through its worst depression (and overseen the defeat of a Spanish empire that had existed for centuries), Americans seemed to be on the thrill ride of their lives. Inventions from the electric light and automobiles to the phonograph record and motion pictures hinted at a future of endless promise. Prosperity seemed to rule.

Or did it? The America of "America 1900" may have been rife with optimism, but it wasn't all grounded in reality.

As 1900 dawned, American troops were embroiled in a seemingly unwinnable war in the Philippines -- where the United States, a country founded on the right of people to be free, was fighting to retain domination over a country that had no wish to be dominated. In the previous 16 years, an estimated 2,600 people had been lynched in America, most of them African-Americans. Coal miners, working in unimaginably dangerous conditions, were barely making subsistence wages. And women had not yet been given the vote.

In short, America at the dawn of the 20th century was a land of great potential and sobering realities -- a mix that gives historians all sorts of wonderful things to talk about and makes for endlessly fascinating television.

No series is better at making history entertaining than "The American Experience," and tonight proves no exception. By using individual people as a way of looking at events, "America 1900" manages to be both accessible and enlightening. Among the men and women you'll meet:

William McKinley, whose fame rests solely on the fact that he was the third president assassinated, is rescued from the scrap heap of history and turned into a flesh-and-blood master of persuasion whose faults were simply that his vision could never transcend his prejudices.

Francis Benjamin Johnston, a 36-year-old photojournalist (one of the first), crisscrossed the country, camera in hand, documenting its people. The result is a series of photographs that capture the mood of the country as well as any scribe.

John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers, actually managed to convince tens of thousands of miners to forget their class and ethnic differences and band together to fight for better working conditions.

And, most prescient of all, W.E.B. DuBois predicted in 1900 that the problem of race would be the dominant issue of the coming century.

"America 1900" occasionally falls victim to that most vexing of historical traps, over-generalization. For instance, while the American upper and ruling classes may have felt like kings of the world, the millions of workers who provided this country with its backbone sure didn't. And 1900 seems not much of a watershed year, but rather typical of the period.

But like the era it documents, "America 1900" contains far too many singular characters to be anything less than fascinating.

'America 1900'

When: Tonight, 8-11

Where: PBS (MPT, Channels 22 and 67)

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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