23 JUNE 1939, Page 25


Building the British Empire. Vol. I. By James Truslow Adams. (Scribners. 15s.)

IT is no easy task—me teste, who have tried it—to compress into two volumes the total achievement of the British peoples from the Ice Age to our own day. To compile a mere compendium of dead facts is easy enough ; but to preserve vitality and coherence, to give unity to a long and complex tale, and to make the reader feel that he has obtained some comprehension of an epic story, and of the character of a great people, this is indeed a great undertaking ; and this is what Mr. Truslow Adams has tried to do, with a considerable measure of success. In this, his first, volume he has brought the story down to the American Revolution, the end of the first empire ; the second volume will be devoted to the development of the modern commonwealth since 5782.

As a distinguished American scholar, Mr. Truslow Adams is well qualified for this task : he shares the heritage which he describes in this volume, but stands sufficiently aloof to take an impartial view. There is, however, nothing dis- tinctively American in his treatment. He presents, in the main, a clear and well-proportioned summary of the results of modern scholarship, which might have been written by an English historian, except that an English writer would probably not have given such frank expression to the admira- tion and affection which Mr. Truslow Adams feels for the British character and tradition. Even in his account of the American Revolution there is no bitterness ; there is rather sympathy, and a soupcon of regret. Following the trend of recent American scholarship, he is more tender to the blunders of George III, Grenville and North than most English writers would be. This is a book which should do as much to create friendship between the two nations as the older type of American text-book did to foster hostility.

In the nature of things there can be no additions to know- ledge in a book of this sort. Its aim is to enable the reader to see the wood rather than the trees, and to arrange the selected facts in due proportion, so that the outstanding and distinctive features of a nation's history shall stand forth in clear relief ; and this is done well and in a generous spirit. Wars, constitutional development, economic change, social conditions, religion, literature and the arts all find their place in Mr. Truslow Adams' clear and straightforward narrative. Perhaps it is a defect that British history is treated too much in isolation, without reference to its European background. Mr. Adams does not attempt to convey the thrill of great moments, such as the defeat of the Armada or the execution of Charles I. He lacks the gift of vivid and illuminating phrase, and he does not contrive to give vitality to the great figures of his story. He has no heroes, save perhaps Edward I and Elizabeth ; and even in these cases he is content to assert rather than to portray their greatness. Or, perhaps one should say, he has one hero: the British people, with their baffling character, which (in Mr. Adams' view) is borne of racial admixture, an island climate, love of sport, and the ideal of a gentleman " ; and which expresses itself in a distrust of ideas, a practical capacity mingled with a sense of humour, a readi- ness for compromise, an easy-going tolerance, and a rooted preference for going one's own way without interference.

The chief value of a book of this kind must always lie in its architecture, in the way in which its masses are distri- buted so as to bring out one another's significance, and in the selection of facts whereby the author's interpretation of his great theme is expressed. No two writers will ever agree upon the relative emphasis to be laid upon this or that group of facts. One may wonder, for example, why Mr. Adams should give so much detail about Henry VIIIth's marital adven-

tures, and so little about the economic reorganisation of the early Flinbethan period, which made possible the triumphs of the later part of the reign. One may wonder, again, why he disregards the birth of humanitarianism in the eighteenth century, which found expression not only in Oglethorpe's settlement of Georgia (which is mentioned), but in the foun- dation of innumerable hospitals, in Mansfield's judgement on the Somerset case, in Grenville's regulations on the sale of Indian lands, in Howard's prison reforms, and in other ways. But perhaps this vital change in the temper of the English society will find a place in the second volume, which will deal with a period wherein it showed itself more clearly.

It is very easy to criticise in detail a work of this character, which tries to express in brief compass the essence of a long and complex story. What one ought rather to do is to thank a distinguished American writer for a lucid, sympathetic and understanding survey of the achievement of a sister nation, a survey which cannot fail to make two peoples more intelli- gible to one another. Since the establishment of an under- standing comradeship between America and Britain is the greatest need of our time, it is to be wished that some compe- tent English historian would undertake thc task of interpreting American history for English readers. The task ought to be easier than that which Mr. Truslow Adams has so gallantly undertaken and so lucidly performed; yet the gap remains