This ingenious biography tells of an ordinary man who lived through an amazing century — and not the current one. During recent decades medicine has produced no miracles to match antibiotics, vaccines, and aseptic surgery, journalist Bill Morris writes. Passenger jets travel only a bit faster than in the 1950s. Smartphones greatly improve on rotary phones but hardly constitute a revolution.
For Morris, the century of truly unrivaled progress began in 1870. Instead of penning a standard history, he writes of his grandfather, born in 1863 and a college professor of no particular note, detouring regularly to recount the great milestones. His oddball take works.
John Morris was born on a Virginia plantation during the Civil War. With its slaves freed at war’s end, Morris the elder found work as an English professor at the University of Georgia. Like most southern public institutions even before the Civil War, the university was underfinanced and behind the times, but Morris’s father made sure his sons—though not his daughters—received a university education as, a few hundred miles north, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, and other innovators were working their magic, while in Europe Pasteur, Koch, and Nobel were not exactly slacking off.
Having graduated, John taught for a few years, obtained a law degree, and failed at a law practice in Birmingham, Alabama. Collecting himself, he spent a year in Germany at the renowned University of Berlin where he took up philology, the study of language.
Following his father to the University of Georgia in 1894, John taught for 50-plus years, modestly adding to an obscure field and witnessing the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. A rare Georgia progressive, he endorsed Black civil rights, women’s rights, and pacifism but was no activist, limiting himself to deploring matters.
Southern racial troubles fill much of the text, but Professor Morris repeatedly notes events elsewhere. From electric lighting to flush toilets to the creation of scientific medicine in the 19th century to cinema, radio, automobiles, television, world wars, and the nuclear age in the 20th, he lived through them all. He was never a significant figure, even at his university, but the author has done a fine job recounting his grandfather’s career and domestic life as he passively witnessed what would be his grandson’s favorite century. —Mike Oppenheim writes in Lexington, Kentucky.
This book review appeared in the Autumn 2022 issue of Ameican History magazine.
The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century—from the Civil War to the Cold War
By Bill Morris
Pegasus, Cambridge UK, 2022
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