Monday, October 6, 2014

Notable book review on the autobiography of George Creel, chairman of the first USG "propaganda" agency, the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919)


Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947. Viii, 384 pp. with index. $3.75 by Cedric Larson, Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 11, no. 4 (Winter, 1947-1948), pp. 626-628

[JB note: Cedric Larson was the quite forgotten co-author of a key, and as yet not dated (in the sense of antiquated), volume on the Committee on Public Information, Words That Won the War; The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919 (1939).]

Perhaps it is purely a coincidence, but San Francisco plays an important part in both the first and the twelfth (so far) books that have come from the busy pen of George Creel during fifty years of intense activity.

For it was Paul Elder, a San Francisco publisher, who brought out in 1908, Quatrains of Christ, a small book of verse "that attested a religious faith, although steering clear of sectarianism," with which Mr. Creel made a somewhat unostentatious, even timid, literary debut. And it was from the study of his Green Street home, perched high atop one of San Francisco's lofty hills, overlooking the Golden Gate that he loves so well, that Mr. Creel has written his life's story, the subject of the present review.

There is a dual meaning hidden in the title, Rebel at Large. Mr. Creel's forebears were from the South (chiefly Virginia and Missouri), and the author spends the first four chapters telling us something of his lineage from colonial times, including the unhappy days of the Civil War which brought much personal hardship into his own home.

"By way of a frank start," Mr. Creel tells us at the outset, "it must be admitted that the open mind was no part of my inheritance." Mr. Creel might well say with Lincoln: "All that I am and hope to be I owe to my angel mother," because his father was a ne'er-do-well, and it was his mother who singlehandedly reared three boys and kept the home going. She was, in fact, both father and mother to him, and gave him those qualities which enabled him to succeed.

But it is by the other connotation of the word Rebel that Mr. Creel is most widely known to the American people. He has ever been, at heart, an uncompromising iconoclast. Nothing suited his pen more happily than the smug hypocrite masquerading as a humanitarian. He eagerly entered the lists and fought with a splendid fury for such causes as woman suffrage, child labor laws, and even Irish freedom. He can be identified with virtually every move- ment of the twentieth century for making democracy work and for correcting abuses. The direct primary, initiative and referendum, recall, city manager plan and a host of other political re- forms found in him an ardent champion.

Mark Sullivan, the dean of the reporting profession in the days of World War I, once remarked that George Creel was the Billy Sunday of politics. And so it was that with an inborn and irrepressible crusading spirit, Mr. Creel early became an outspoken and zealous disciple of Woodrow Wilson and the New Freedom. He took an active part in Wilson's campaign for re-election in 1916, writing two books, innumerable articles and a variety of other efforts. The President loved him as a son, for in addition to their political beliefs being virtually identical, they both shared a common Virginia heritage.

When war was declared on Germany in 19I7, it seems only natural, therefore, for Wilson to have picked Mr. Creel to head the Committee on Public Information, or CPI, as it was usually called, which was the 1917-18 version and prototype of the OWI [JB -- Office of War Information] of World War II.

Mr. Creel, like St. Paul of old, has been all things to all men. But his place in American history is secure by virtue of one thing above all others, the Chairmanship of the CPI. He was -- to use an appellation bestowed upon him by the late Ivy L. Lee in I9I8 -- "the American Minister of Propaganda" of World War I.

A third of the book is set in the Wilsonian era, and some chapters deal with his work as head of the Committee on Public Information. The CPI story he has already told in detail in How We Advertised America (I920) [JB highlight] but the new 1947 chapters place a fresh interpretation on his informational and censorship activities in the light of subsequent history. He shows a fierce and touching loyalty to Wilson throughout.

During the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover era, Mr. Creel went into temporary eclipse, performing sundry literary chores such as an interpretative history of Mexico and a popular biography of Sam Houston, besides other books and a host of magazine articles.

With the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Mr. Creel's star was again in the ascendant. Displaying all his old-time fire, he once more threw himself into the fray, and soon was in the thick of political turmoil. Early in the 1930's he missed the governorship of California only by a quirk of fate, due to the split of the regular Democratic Party in that State by Upton Sinclair and his EPIC plan; and when the NRA was created, he was named Chief of the Western Division, and later Chairman of the Advisory Board of the WPA.

Chapter Thirty-Nine bears the title, "Mad Hatters and March Hares," and describes Mr. Creel's observations on our country's informational activities in World War II. The author opens this chapter with real pathos:

"With the war call sounding, I flew to Washington after the New Year [1942], eager for a chance to serve in any capacity. As my failure to show enthusiasm for the third term had lost me the favor of the White House, I trudged from office to office, patiently recalling the part I had played in World War I. The young men to whom I talked, many of them looking as if they had just come from commencement exercises, were very courteous, but seemed to have difficulty in differentiating between the 1917 conflict and the Punic Wars. By the time I gave up in despair, they almost had me believing that I was a veteran of Caesar's campaigns."

Instead of being a sort of grand prophet to the OWI, Mr. Creel's major usefulness in World War II turned out to be as the Washington correspondent of Collier's, interpreting the war in many of its phases to a nation-wide audience. His life-long association with this magazine is, of course, known to most Americans.

"Roosevelt As I Saw Him," Chapter Forty-One, is a penetrating word-portrait of the late President, drawn with vigor and bold strokes. Three or four chapters, scattered here and there throughout this work, deal with President Harry Truman, who comes from the same part of Missouri where Creel's family lived.

Someone has said that in the author's spectrum there are only blacks and whites -- no intervening shades. This tendency of course has reflected itself in statements and judgments scattered throughout the volume, with which many people may frankly disagree. But in all fairness we must admit that Mr. Creel always endeavors to be honest and frank, cherishes a high sense of personal honor, and must be characterized as a generous foe.

For the student of public opinion, Rebel at Large is, in the opinion of this reviewer, the "Book-of-the-Year." Written in a scintillating, if rather breezy, but truly inimitable style, there is not a dull page in the book. It is the kind of volume that the reader feels impelled to finish at one sitting [JB note: if he can stand it].

1 comment:

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