In Search of History

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The major events of this century have been chronicled by professional journalists, both print and nonprint, who have been in the midst of the action, recording for us every detail of each event of major or minor significance. Theodore White is a journalist whose good fortune and sense of history have enabled him to be present at and active in many pivotal events of this century. His sense of the historically important has been the underlying force in the decisions that shaped his professional career. Over several decades, White has kept carefully written, detailed notes of the events he has witnessed and the conversations he has had in his capacity as a writer for various news media. He has a passion for detail, especially political detail, and a keen insight into the meaning of an event in human terms. Since his notes are made with an eye toward publication, they are greatly inclusive. His talent for colorful writing is evident not only in the present volume, but in the details which he chose to record so many years ago.

In Search of History is an autobiographical account of the historical events White witnessed from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. The book is organized chronologically into several major segments: his childhood, the years that he spent in China as a war correspondent, his European experiences, and his coverage of American presidential politics. Each of these major sections is written in the first person, but each is also prefaced with a third-person narration set in a different style of type to emphasize the shift. This device of stepping aside from the story line, though somewhat awkward, is effective in adding perspective through which the reader can adjust to the upcoming events.

White’s fascination with history came about as part of his extraordinary educational background. His home life included discussion of current events and an emphasis on reading. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, a rigorously academic institution, instead of a neighborhood high school. In order to pay his transportation costs to and from the Latin School and to help with home expenses during the Depression, he sold newspapers on the street-cars. It was in this very practical arena that he first became aware that history as it was happening could sell newspapers, and that the more colorful the story being told, the more newspapers he could sell.

White attended Harvard on a scholarship, aided by a grant from the Burroughs Newsboys Foundation; after graduating summa cum laude, he was awarded a fellowship which gave him the opportunity to increase his knowledge through travel. He went to China to see at first hand the culture whose language and literature had been his university major.

The fellowship which provided him the money to get to China was not sufficient to allow him to remain there indefinitely without a job. Henry Luce of Time magazine needed a writer who could mail colorful background stories covering major events, which would be just as pertinent six weeks after mailing as when written. This assignment gave White the opportunity to use his knowledge of Chinese language and culture and to interview many important people in Asia during the years 1938-1945.

Some of these interviews, punctuated by deft, incisive descriptions of leaders both in their official capacities and at a more personal level, are printed in White’s book. His description of Henry Luce, for example, includes such phrases as “Conversation with Luce. . . was like conversation with a vacuum cleaner.” Such phrases capture the sense of urgency and the probing mind of the subject. Whether writing of Chou En-lai’s “silken courtesy” or Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “clean, hard prose,” White describes personalities as much as persons.

One concept with which White grapples throughout the book is the image of...

(The entire section is 1589 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Business Week. August 21, 1978, p. 8.

Commentary. LXVI, November, 1978, p. 74.

New Leader. LXI, October 23, 1978, p. 16.

New York Review of Books. XXV, November 9, 1978, p. 6.

Newsweek. XCII, August 14, 1978, p. 66.