In this essay I have two purposes. One is to write about the marvelous beauty of Eric Sevareid’s prose. The other is to try to tease out one of the principal qualities of his life—a strange detachment, a kind of elemental, experiential, self-imposed loneliness that haunted him all of his life, and particularly in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Sevareid is best known for two achievements. He was one of the first wave, or nearly the first wave, of the Murrow Boys, the group of talented writers-turned-broadcasters recruited by Edward R. Murrow to report live on CBS radio from London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin during the buildup to world war in the late 1930s. Sevareid took this role very seriously. In his last-ever nightly news commentary on CBS, November 30, 1977, Sevareid put it starkly so no one would fail to hear it. He called Murrow “the man who invented me.” That’s an exceedingly strong assertion.
For fourteen years (1963-1977), during one of the most tumultuous decades in American history, Sevareid was the analyst and commentator on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News. He was the only regular commentator on American television through those momentous years, at a time when the American people had only three news networks to choose from. CBS News was at the height of its prestige then. As the tumult grew and the decade darkened—beginning with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and careening towards My Lai and the Chicago convention, towards Chappaquiddick and the Watergate Hotel—the American people inevitably turned to Sevareid for clarification, context, and consolation. He was, in a sense, the Greek chorus of American life through the revolutionary 60s, the conscience of America, the voice of an increasingly uneasy establishment culture.
By the end of his career he allowed himself to be caricatured—slightly—on episodes of Taxi and as a soothing and slightly ponderous voice of national assurance at the dawn of the space age in The Right Stuff.
Sevareid died in 1992—18 years ago. His delivered his last commentary in 1977—a full 33 years ago. Except for those Baby Boomers who spend part of their time looking backward, he is largely forgotten. And to the extent that he is remembered, he is largely remembered as a somewhat stiff, gulping, word-turning, gray eminence, literate to the edge of pretentiousness. In a commentary on the first energy crisis (1973-74) he was reduced to, “The jet set just sits for lack of jets.” In other words, by the end the caricature was in danger of overtaking the commentator. There is a strange disconnect between the anxiously bold young Murrow Boy crouching on the London streets with a microphone during the Blitz and the somber, sedentary, unapproachable Norse god of CBS Evening News.
This assessment is unfair to Sevareid—but I have accurately, I believe, described the trajectory of his last years and posthumous reputation. He deserves better. Walter Cronkite was right, after that last commentary just after Thanksgiving 1977, to say, “To this newsman he’s one of the finest essayists of the century.” Unfortunately, Sevareid’s prose is not much read any more. Only his first book, Canoeing with the Cree (1935) continues to find readers. It is a good book, but it is a book written for boys by a man who has not yet found his voice or let his immense reading shape his prose. Sevareid’s chapter on the 1930 canoe trip in Not So Wild a Dream is infinitely more interesting than the earlier account, in part because he brought his full adult consciousness to what by now was a reflective essay rather than a narrative, in part because the later version exhibits Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” All of his life, Sevareid was a better analyst than a storyteller.
By 1946, on the other side of World War II, he can introduce his account of the river trek with, “I then proceeded to an adventurous enterprise so heroic in its scope that I am staggered to this day when I recall it. It is practically devoid of meaning and implication.” He is not quite telling the truth. The journey was indeed full of meaning and implication. Later in the essay, recounting the moment when what he thought would be a lark turned in fact into an ordeal, he wrote, “I was scared and I knew it. I was experiencing that indefinable feeling which comes to most soldiers at some unpredictable moment in war, the feeling of having pushed one’s luck too far.” He recalls Murrow confessing that if he (Murrow) hid in an air raid shelter once, “I could not stop doing it.” Says Sevareid: “What I was entering upon at Norway House was a contest with myself. I knew instinctively that if I gave up now, no matter what the justification, it would become easier forever afterwards to justify compromise with any achievement” . Sevareid was not a naturally courageous man. With his characteristic honesty he admitted as much throughout his life. The breakthrough—stamina, triumph over fear, refusal to throw in the towel–in the Canadian wilderness became one of the principal rites of passage of young Sevareid’s life. Only in retrospect could he know how much had been at stake up there in God’s River in northern Manitoba.
By 1946, on the other side of the war, he understood social hierarchy, race, colonialism, and the arrogance of the Teutonic people as he could not have understood them as a fresh high school graduate from the sheltered heartland of America. “When I observed Colonel Reid stroll straight through a group of [Canadian] Indians on the board walk, without the slightest hesitation in his deliberate stride, without the faintest suggestion in his countenance that he was aware of their existence, it left an impression somewhere in the back of my mind—but I did not know what I was really seeing, what I was to see later in many parts of the world. I had never heard of Imperialism. I did not know there were whole races and classes of people living in the relationship of master and slave and that this coexistence conditioned the members of each group in their very bodies, the working of the eyes, the carrying of the shoulders, the timbre of the voice box, the whole interfunctioning of the nervous system” [25-26].
What one discovers in rereading Sevareid, especially when he had leisure to write from the deepest springs of his muse, was what an outstanding writer he was. He is, among other things, a brilliant crafter of sentences. Examples: “The tragedy of war is not in the dead nor in the living; it is in the living dead” . Of the British homeless in subway (tube) stations at the end of the war: “One had to descend the tube stairs at midnight and see again the old men and women, whose faces had taken on the gray color of the cement, the withered, unwanted ones, who, from the habit of fear, sat patiently each night on the edges of narrow wire bunks, waiting for the roaring trains to stop and the crowds to thin away so that they could sleep in tiers like domesticated animals at a public fair” . He has an uncanny ability to use figurative language in a restrained but significant, often profound way. England in the chill of April: “The village squares become grim and lifeless; the cathedrals appear grotesque, forbidding, like dark Bastilles of the human spirit” . He almost never settles for that which can comfortably be said. He is continuously stretching himself and his reader, not to the point of obfuscation, but sometimes nearly so.
Sevareid was a somber man. In spite of his enormous talents and all his successes, he seems never to have relaxed into his life. It’s never a breezy business reading Sevareid when he is in his fully serious mode. He is capable of writing light-hearted prose (as in his collections of essays), but one is always aware that a very serious, often melancholic man is making himself write in a deliberately light-hearted manner. When Sevareid is really trying to make sense of the world, the war, the problematic rise of America to world power, the tension between America’s immense promise and its actual performance as a great power, at home and in the world, he is not usually so much expressing insight as seeking it through the process of writing. He is, in the best sense of the term, thinking out loud on paper. Sevareid seems to have believed that the world is knowable, that it is possible to make sense of the course of human events, that events are neither random nor inexplicable; but at the same time he was aware, and he made sure we are aware, that things are very nearly inexplicable and that only a deep background in the humanities, a lifetime of careful reading and observation, and a genuine discipline for articulation and analysis, will get at the truth. For Sevareid nothing is ever quite what it seems. Something else is always going on, and it is the job of the reporter, the commentator, the analyst, and the historian to do the hard work of getting at it.
Sevareid is incapable of writing unselfconsciously. One feels his brooding presence in every paragraph, every sentence. One can almost feel him sitting back from the paper in front of him, reflecting before formulating, revising the thought that he has in mind, burrowing into the memory or the event for the perfect detail but pulling himself back from it emotionally. Through much of his life Sevareid wrote to immediate deadline. He developed a prose that could make the weekday evening transition to spoken speech. He became very good at that—perhaps the best in American broadcast history. But his greatness lies elsewhere. Sevareid is at his best when he is writing without a pressing deadline, when he can really let his prose play itself out, when he is liberated from the straightforward discipline of radio or television syntax and style. In other words, to understand Eric Sevareid, one must read his memoir Not So Wild a Dream.
Not So Wild a Dream was written in 1945 and published in 1946. It was written relatively quickly for so great a book, on the west coast, after the United Nations Charter conference in San Francisco. One night in Carmel, where Sevareid took a sabbatical to write the book, his first wife Lois read the first few chapters of the manuscript while he was sleeping. In doing so, she not only fell in love with Eric all over again, in a new and (she said) deeper way, but she learned more about him from his memoir than she had ever learned from being his lover and wife. This anecdote, related by Sevareid himself in the 1976 reissue of Not So Wild a Dream, gets at the second of my themes, Eric Sevareid’s loneliness and detachment. By his own account, he was not a very good father and not a very good husband, at least in the long run. He was known to millions but he had few friends—depending, of course, on how one defines friends. Other employees at CBS News, including journalists of national reputation, learned to leave him mostly alone. Those who failed to understand the unwritten Sevareid rules were soon put in their place. He was not, in the words of Samuel Johnson, “a clubbable fellow.” He was a solemn, solitary, somewhat awkward man, capable, of course, of bursts of warmth, familiarity, and conviviality. But on any given day he was alone, aloof, and a little imperious. Dan Rather, reflecting on him two decades later, said Sevareid was like a “Norse god of the Great Plains.” The sense others had of Eric was that he was a man of serious thought and that to interrupt him was to risk derailing his philosophic reverie. And then paying the price for it.
Like other great journalists, he took a certain pride in standing outside the circle of events looking in, maintaining objectivity and not letting himself become the story. But the sense one has in studying his life is that he would have been out there on the periphery no matter what profession he chose, that he was always solemn, always emotionally (and often physically) unapproachable, except among the handful he gave more access, and even then not constantly or regularly. Sevareid was not exactly a pessimist. It could be argued, from the final pages of Not So Wild a Dream and from the bulk of his radio and television commentaries, that Sevareid was a chastened idealist or a melancholic progressive. He never lost faith in the possibility that truth and good will could redeem the world, at least up to a point. He never lost his belief that America, as he put it at the end of the memoir, was now not just the world’s hope but the world’s necessity. America “could still,” he wrote, “work greatly to create a world in its own great image, but if the result was to be one to capture the allegiance of the confraternity of goodwill, America would also have to greatly work upon herself” . Perhaps it would be best to call him a grieving optimist or a somewhat disillusioned idealist.
Not So Wild a Dream is mostly a book about war. Of its 522 pages, all but the first 107 are about World War II in one way or another. Only the first 75 pages are about Sevareid’s childhood in Velva, North Dakota, his canoe trip to the Arctic with his high school friend Walter Port, about what might be called “the radicalization of Eric Sevareid” at the University of Minnesota, about his marriage to Lois Finger, or about the most important decision of his life, his move from the heartland of America to Paris in 1937.
The best chapters of Not So Wild a Dream, in my view, are the last ones, the chapters based on, if not quite about, his return to Europe in 1944 for the final battles of the great war. Not So Wild a Dream ends spasmodically with the birth of the atomic bomb, on August 6, 1945 at Hiroshima, which effectively shattered the narrative Sevareid thought he was writing. From a literary point of view, Hiroshima essentially undid the book, and in a certain way trivialized the cataclysm of the world war. “Now,” he wrote wearily, “the issue was squarely put to me and my generation, whose real trial and test was now revealed to be not at all accomplished, as I had imagined, but to lie just ahead. How was life to go on?” . In other words, the suicide of Hitler (April 30, 1945) and the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers (May 7), and the imminence of the collapse of Japan, marked not the long-anticipated end of the story, but—after the detonation at Alamogordo—the perplexing and shocking beginning of a much graver drama. “The issue seemed to be scraped bare of all intervening layers,” Sevareid wrote, “the matters with which I had been concerned and which now appeared in the cold and desperate vision as misleading superfluities.” “The matters with which I had been concerned,” are not only pages 1-511 of Not So Wild a Dream, but also the greatest war in human history. “Misleading superfluities” is a powerful and telling phrase. Sevareid is essentially saying that the birth of the atomic bomb stripped World War II (and the book, and in a sense his life so far) of the closure it needed after so great, so epic, and so agonizing a drama, for himself, his country, and the globe.
“Up to the sixth of August, 1945, we had been trying to make it possible for men to live better. Now we should have to try to make it possible for men to live.”  At all, he means.
At the close of Not So Wild a Dream, Sevareid’s life, so far as he is known to the mass of Americans, was still far in the future. There would be a busy interregnum between the end of the war and the Cronkite years. That is the area most in need of explication. He did some of his best work in those years, in spite of the long, dissipating breakdown of his marriage to Lois and the problems of postwar re-entry he shared with other wartime correspondents and writers, most notably William L. Shirer, who was fired from CBS with Murrow’s blessing, and driven, in near destitution, to writing one of the most important (and still one of the most compelling) books ever written about the era, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960).
The overwhelming experience one has in finishing Not So Wild a Dream is to anticipate its sequel. That Sevareid did not attempt to provide one is the most significant failure of his life. The natural moment to have written part two would have been after 1977, when he retired from CBS, and well before ill health began to consume him in the mid-1980s. Nobody in the year 1980, as Ronald Reagan retired the 1960s once and for all, could have synthesized the years since Hiroshima better than Sevareid. His accumulated commentaries, newspaper columns, and occasional essays can be made to serve much the same purpose. Even in short bites, he was always interesting, always contextual, and often profound. But they could never be made to deliver a paragraph like this one:
Through civilized, settled Provence, through the sun fields of Van Gogh and the green-and-purpose patchwork of Cezanne, through the formal unity of old Europe spread the brown waves of the invaders from the New World. Their faces were different, every one. Their voices rang loudly in tranquility, and their fearsome engines swelled to mammoth proportions in this garden of precision. ‘Il n’y a pas de mystere en Europe.’ The Old World has exhausted its reserves of secrecy, every ambition and origin is charted, every hedge and turning is possessed and known, and only in the new worlds of America and Russia does mystery remain. Now the contrast never ceased to shock and astound; this was like a bullfight in an eighteenth-century salon” .
A passage of this depth and syntax could never be voiced on radio or television. Never. Coming as he did from print and a time of much greater literacy, when the canon was still intact, Sevareid was able to voice commentaries of surprising depth and nuance. He would not be so indulged today. But at no time in his broadcast career was he able to let himself relax into the full Sevareid voice.
We want volume two of the Dream. He knew he had failed to provide it. Somewhere he acknowledges this in no uncertain terms.
Not So Wild a Dream is different from other World War II journalists’ memoirs. It has none of the broad sweep and narrative comprehensiveness of William L. Shirer’s The Nightmare Years (part two of his magnificent three-volume memoir). It bears little resemblance to Howard K. Smith’s Last Train from Berlin and Vincent Sheehan’s Personal History. The book it most resembles actually comes from the previous century: Henry Adams’s Education of Henry Adams. It has that kind of emotional detachment and detached self-referential quality, as if both men are writing about someone they are not quite sure they know.
Take, for example, the following paragraph, written about the eternal village verities of England at the end of the long war. Sevareid is reminded of Velva. “Dakota river. Sussex glade. Moss grows upon them, but none of us can quite forget. They are joined together now in the small, one country of the spirit, ditched across the heart in tender pain, and there they stay, forever barricade against invasion” . This is essentially poetry in prose. What is the “small, one country of the spirit?” What better definition of nostalgia than Sevareid’s “ditched across the heart in tender pain?” Somehow his phrase, “barricade against invasion,” is a key to understanding his soul and his detachment. It is not quite possible to explicate this phrase, but it tells us something essential about the walls Sevareid erected between his soul and the world, and—sometimes—his soul and his higher intellect.
Shortly after penning that paragraph, Sevareid stepped back to reflect on what Britain had lost in the war. It is one of the finest analyses he ever crafted. It could stand today, as well as then, as a perfect description of post-war Britain. “The British were gradually becoming aware that their whole position in the world was altered; their material, political, and moral authority, while not directly challenged was being quietly ignored; it was not longer taken very seriously, and the English found themselves forced to the undignified, un-British extremity of having to deliberately voice it in rising tones” .
One can hear the Margaret Thatcher of the Falklands War in this paragraph. It would probably be a mistake to call Eric Sevareid a philosopher. He seems to have been indifferent to the terms and concerns of modern philosophy. But it is more precise to call him a public philosopher, or a philosopher of culture, than a public intellectual. His mind invariably moved from situation and circumstance to philosophical reflection.
Other reporters (even in their memoirs) were describers of events, some large, some small. Sevareid was always a deliver of insights. Of Britain’s growing envy of America he could write, “It was as if in the British mind the Americans were a kind of mass army of robots, a machine which felt no pain nor sorrow, an unhuman Goliath who happened now to be on the side of England who was David. The American army was a vast organization of thick-skinned football players; theirs was composed of individual Rupert Brookes” . Sevareid depended on his reader’s knowledge of the British writers of World War I, the psychic distinction between the two great wars, a certain British war style that, even as late as the Falklands, led to stories in the British press of somber field colonels who were killed with a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets in their pockets.
I know of no other world War II reporter or memoirist who could have written this account of the decline of Britain so well.
Then there is the Sevareid propensity for antithesis, which will become a hallmark, sometimes a crutch, in the Cronkite years. “Britain was painfully closing the gap, narrow in physical measurement but psychologically a chasm, between her old position as the smallest of great powers, to her new one as the greatest of small powers” . By 1968 this will become, “Martin Luther King was not an American Negro, but a Negro American.” The only significant weakness of Sevareid’s writing is his addiction to such rhetorical gimmicks as anaphora, antithesis, antistrophe, asyndeton, catachresis, and hypallage. Rhetorical devices, in the words of Dr. Johnson, were for Sevareid, “the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it.”
I regard Not So Wild a Dream as the greatest book ever written by a North Dakotan. That would not seem to be praise enough, probably, for Sevareid, the man who was, as he put it, “cultivated out of my natural roots,” but it would nonetheless please him. It’s only rival is Larry Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall, another book that deserves a much larger readership than it has been able to hold since its publication in 1975. In reading Not So Wild a Dream, you are always aware of Sevareid’s mind at work. George Orwell famously insisted that the best prose was like a transparent window pain. This is the opposite of the experience of reading Sevareid. One always feels that Sevareid has much more to say, that he has had to force himself to say as much as he did, and that if he could just surrender to it, and leave his self-consciousness at the door, we’d learn a great deal more about his experiences and his soul than we ever quite do.
North Dakotans have tended to get stuck on Sevareid’s famous dismissal: North Dakota, he wrote, was “a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.” He returned only three times after his family left in 1925—to pick up awards or to be followed about by photojournalists in the pose of returning to his roots. For all of their pessimism and expatriate guiltiness, the first couple of chapters of Not So Wild a Dream are, in my estimation, the most insightful words ever written about North Dakota.
“North Dakota. Why have I not returned for so many years? Why have so few from those prairies ever returned? Where is its written chapter in the long and varied American story? . . . Perhaps the feeling had been communicated from my mother, but very early I acquired a sense of having no identity in the world, of inhabiting, by some cruel mistake, an outland, a lost and forgotten place upon the far horizon of my country” 
The Problem of Detachment
On the one occasion in his long life when Sevareid took the lead and became a man of action, when the C-46 plane on which he was taking passage to China on August 2, 1943, crashed in the Burma jungle, no one was more surprised than he was. “I found that I was taking the leadership in organizing the movement—rather to my surprise, upon reflection, for this was not my normal reaction, either by instinct or by reason of habit as an ‘observer’ of other men’s action” . This Sevareid, born of crisis, unexpected and unwanted, did not have a very long or distinguished career. The moment the British jungle king Philip Adams appeared out of the bush a few days later, like a deus ex machina, Sevareid happily relinquished his leadership role, and became uncharacteristically worshipful of Adams, who does not impress the 21st century reader nearly as much as he impressed the 30-year-old Sevareid, who was suffering from nervous exhaustion.
Sevareid admitted that he had gone back to Europe in 1944 filled with “the desire to identify myself with them [American soldiers], to truly experience and understand what all these men of my generation were undergoing, to get inside their minds and live there” [492-93]. This is perfectly understandable, but the moment Sevareid writes these words, the reader is pretty sure that a sad, but characteristically candid, acknowledgement of the failure of this project is sure to follow. Which, immediately, it does: “While with the armies I had awakened almost everyday with the feeling: You haven’t quite captured it; it still evades you” . Sevareid has the integrity to confess defeat: “But the whole experience at the fronts had come and gone, and I never achieved the feeling that I had arrived in the realm of common identity with the soldiers. By now I knew it would never happen”
. Few writers are this honest.
Sevareid told the hard truth in one of the last broadcasts he made from Europe. “Only the soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier’s outward life and dangers, but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear upon him. The observer knows he has alternatives of action; the soldier knows he has none. It is the mere knowing which makes the difference. Their worlds are very far apart, for one is free, the other a slave” . Then the conclusion: “I’m sorry to say, that is also why in a certain sense you and your sons from the war will be forever strangers.”
If I were writing a full-length study of Sevareid, I would be tempted to call it Forever Strangers. The concept had a deep appeal to him, or perhaps it simply characterized his experience in a way he could not deny.
The conclusion of the 1944 radio commentary is remarkable for two reasons. First, he would use it again, in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the surface of the moon: “We’re always going to feel, somehow, strangers to these men. They will, in effect, be a bit stranger, even to their own wives and children. Disappeared into another life that we can’t follow. I wonder what their life will be like, now.” Although this insight correctly anticipated the post-lunar experiences of at least Buzz Aldrin, surely the phrase, “somehow, strangers,” is, in part, an autobiographical statement, delivered one day after the landing on the moon, but a full 26 years after the landing at Anzio, which is more likely to be its truest source.
Second, Sevareid’s London broadcast represents the ultimate admission of the futility of writing. For what does a writer do but try to put the reader into a scene that the reader did not share? Most writers experience the feeling (at one time or another, or often, for that matter) that they cannot quite communicate what it is that they most want to say. Few writers admit this so painfully and candidly as did Sevareid in the autumn of 1944 at the end of the war that occupies so much of his memoir.
Ah, but here’s the ironic and remarkable sequel. After delivering this commentary on CBS Radio, Sevareid feared that he had said too much, gone too far, been too candid, presented himself in a narcissistic and self-indulgent way. He feared a backlash—from listeners or from the CBS management. Instead, he received more positive mail for that broadcast than for anything else he had uttered during the war. His secretary in New York wrote to say, “I have never seen such mail on my desk. You must have reached the hearts of millions.” Sevareid was puzzled, troubled, and reassured by the broadcast and the public response it inspired. I believe this experience—which he more than half expected to backfire—actually empowered Eric Sevareid for the rest of his long and distinguished career. I believe he realized, at this moment, and in a handful of other moments like this, that what the public wants is not just information, reportage, and perspective, but sometimes, on special occasions, to glimpse carefully into the soul of the reporter. Those who make a habit of this—Tom Snyder, perhaps, or Geraldo Rivera, or, some would say, Dan Rather—pay the price and come to be regarded as narcissists or exhibitionists. Sevareid walked the line perfectly for 33 years, but never without anxiety about what losing control of his tightly protected inner identity might portend.
As the war wound down in France, Sevareid shared a victory dinner with a group of local aristocrats and resistance fighters. He described the evening with his usual mastery. “They talked too loudly and all at once, they drank far too much, proposed foolish, sentimental toasts, embraced on another and each other’s wives. It was all wonderful, and never to be forgotten, a moment for the brave heart which life would not repeat” . And then the inevitable detachment. “They included me, the onlooker, in their happiness, but along with sharing their spirit I experienced a sense of hopeless envy; I would rather have been one of them than anyone else upon earth.”
But he wasn’t.
I believe the war scarred Eric Sevareid more than he ever admitted.
The adjectives that come to mind when thinking about Sevareid’s prose all seem unfair when they glare up from the page: ponderous, portentous, overwrought. There is some truth in these descriptors, but they don’t do justice to his drive to get it right, to be fair, to find the detail that somehow serves as a parable larger than itself. Not So Wild a Dream is decidedly not the book of a young man who (for all of his protestations) had the time of his life covering the war in Europe, first in 1939-40 and later in 1943-45. It is the book of a man who was horrified by what he experienced and scarred by it in some way that was not debilitating, but that clouded the lens for the rest of his life.
Sevareid would be the first to insist that he did not really experience the horror of World War II, because he was observing the war not fighting it, and because he could withdraw whenever he wished to, unlike the men in uniform. Fair enough. That’s how he saw it; it is not necessarily how we should see it. It may be that his experience as an observer actually brought him to see and feel things that the soldiers he traveled with—caught in the moment, indifferent (most of them) to the meaning and the causes of the great war—could not or did not see. In other words, it is possible that a remarkably sensitive and morally acute observer, like Sevareid, embedded in the heart of the action, and liberated from soldierly duty from the tyranny of military orders and the claims of the immediate, saw more than common soldiers had the luxury of seeing, and therefore experienced the raw horrors of war more than the busy soldiers around him could take in. He would reject such an analysis, but that doesn’t rule out its validity.
Sevareid’s description of the reprisals of the French citizenry against collaborators, quislings, and Vichy members and sympathizers is chilling. A fair portion of the end of the memoir is about the liberation of France and the dark energies it unleashed among the French citizenry. After watching a large crowd, including young children, witness the execution (by a firing squad) of six collaborators in Grenoble, Sevareid pauses for reflection: “The scene was barbarous. A mob? The people were the citizens of Grenoble, who had always raised families, gone to church, taken pride in their excellent university of higher culture, and done no general hurt to humanity before. Is the important thing the way they had behaved, or why they had so behaved?” .
Many of Sevareid’s fellow reporters condemned the reprisals. Sevareid could not bring himself to do so. When he got back to the press camp at Grenoble, Sevareid got into “a flaring argument with two well-liked colleagues who were outraged by what they believed was drumhead justice.” He held his own, of course—Sevareid was absolutely brilliant at argument, in the Aristotelian sense of the term. But later he wondered: “All normal authority was broken down in this upheaval of an outraged nation. To bow to the desires of the populace seemed to invite mob rule. Not to do so seemed certain to prevent any authority from taking hold and to invite chaos again.” In other words, Sevareid had developed an anthropological understanding of war, revolution, restoration, and human nature. “What we were seeing was a moral renewal and regeneration through armed rebellion” . He recognized that France could not recover from its collossal humiliation in 1940 and the social fracturing that attended the inevitable phenomenon of collaboration with the enemy unless there was a reckoning, a catharsis. He saw the violent reprisals, some of them barely warranted, as a necessary ritual of mob (or community) violence.
In Europe, far away from Velva, North Dakota, Sevareid saw things from which one does not ever really recover: rape of women and children, the random slaughter of the innocents, hangings of children under ten years old, shootings of noncombatants, shellings of French and Italian buildings not because they had any strategic value, but because the American soldiers were bored or just for the fun of it, rotting bodies, the leer of violence in its must unrestrained forms. He observed much and condemned little. Thanks to his wide reading and capacity for moral detachment, Sevareid realized that when the dogs of war are unleashed, mayhem is certain to follow, no matter how carefully the military commanders labor to contain their soldiers, no matter how fully a nation subscribes to the Geneva Conventions.
In Chapter IV of Not So Wild a Dream, long before he saw the worst excesses of the war, Sevareid returns to the American heartland—to Wisconsin. His detachment is unmistakable. “Already part of my mind was somewhere else looking with objectivity at my own country,” he writes. “I knew all this. I must have looked exactly like these boys on a hundred Sunday mornings at eleven o’clock. How imperceptibly but how completely one enters a new personal dimension! What mine now was I did not know, but passing through Wisconsin on Sunday morning I knew that I had been cultivated out of my natural roots, that I really had no home in the sense that my father’s generation understood the word.”
It is very clear that Sevareid indeed had been cultivated out of my natural roots. By leaving the blank rectangle that was North Dakota, and becoming over time a genuine citizen of the world, indeed one who had engaged in his deepest life experiences on a foreign continent, in foreign nations, in a world crisis of such elemental intensity that nothing that came after could ever keep up, he became in many regards a man who “really had no home.”
When he returned to Europe to cover the war in 1944, he reflected on the possibility of a postwar brotherhood among the former combatants, cheered on by a better, less toothless “League of Nations.” Still, the characteristic pessimism asserted itself. “If all men are brothers, still all are alone and never to be entirely explored in their separate minds; if all must dwell in this one small house, still each must have his own room inviolate, and cherished private habits and dreams must suffer no rude invasion” . Again, the fear that the self will somehow be invaded.
When he saw young men die at the front in Italy, he wrote, “What right have I to live and urge them on in behalf of my beliefs, these children who die not comprehending” . It’s the same story. The brave young men who were fighting at the front did not, in Sevareid’s view, really understand what the war was about. “They did not hate the concept of Fascism because they did not understand it. But they struggled on, climbing the hills, wading the rivers until they dropped, and sometimes, watching them die in ignorant glory, I had to fight and reason away sharp stabs of conscience” . Clearly, Sevareid believed that he understood the causes and the dynamics of the war, but he was not fighting the war, even though he was at the front as an observer. And then again the detachment, which should not be confused with a journalist’s unwillingness to overuse the first person. “If this sight was discomforting to an American, who cherished England, the behavior of his own countrymen in the foreign world was equally disturbing” .
Even in the precise moment when World War II ended, Sevareid could not surrender to triumph. At the conclusion of Not So Wild a Dream, he writes, “I knew I would never see a battle again. There was relief in the thought, but it was followed by another feeling, which I did not admit to myself for some time—a sneaking sensation of nostalgia and regret” .
Nostalgia and regret. This is Eric Sevareid. Or, as he signed off on his last broadcast, this was Eric Sevareid.