Perry applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur, and reported the following:
Novelist Ford Madox Ford supposed that a reader might open any book “to page 99 and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” The test is clever and seems right: in the best novels, which is what he meant, fine writing and subtle style should be apparent on every page.Learn more about The Most Dangerous Man in America at the Basic Books website.
I would argue that the same is true for non-fiction, and particularly for American non-fiction, which is our nation’s unique genre. No one would claim that Russia, the country that gave us Gogol and Tolstoy, is a hotbed of non-fiction, but that’s not true for America, whose readers consume biographies and histories as often as the rest of us eat chicken.
So too, our best non-fiction rises to the level of literature, scaling past the simple recounting of events and facts. Great non-fiction becomes great literature when it moves us. This is as it should be: our country’s best and earliest writer, Thomas Paine, was an essayist, the finest memoir in any language was penned by our most celebrated military leader, Ulysses S. Grant and (arguably) the Lost Generation’s most influential stylist was neither Fitzgerald or Hemingway, but Edmund Wilson, whose Patriotic Gore and To The Finland Station are triumphs of brilliant historical writing.
There are counters to my claim. No one would deny the greatness of our literary giants (Whitman, Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Angelou), whose legacy is the novel and poetry. Yet, even our most recent “greats” did more than just dabble in non-fiction. Gore Vidal wrote novels that were American and historical, Truman Capote’s most powerful work recounted a mass murder, James Baldwin made his name as a brilliant essayist and Norman Mailer placed himself as a character at the center of his era’s historical events.
For writers of history, like me, this legacy provides a unique challenge. My job as an historian is to tell my readers a story that they think they know, but don’t, to make my recounting of events literature. To follow in the footsteps of Paine and Grant and Wilson and Baldwin. I tried to do this in The Most Dangerous Man In America, a biography of Douglas MacArthur that ends with the end of World War Two.
It is not for me to say whether my book is literature, but I hope that in keeping with our country’s non-fiction legacy, it is gripping – and tells Americans something about their history they don’t know. So it is that The Most Dangerous Man In America’s “page 99” is page 181, a simple recounting of “the war within the war” of World War Two.
On that page, I make it clear that the most important story of our last global conflict did not involve a clash of arms, but a clash of intellects. Indeed, while the triumphs of Tarawa, Okinawa, D-Day, Stalingrad and Bastogne were key to the defeat of Japanese and German militarism, the most important battles of the war were fought far from the battlefield – and determined the war’s outcome. This is the central story of The Most Dangerous Man In America, and it’s in keeping with our country’s monumental non-fiction legacy.
For as Paine, Grant, Wilson and Baldwin have taught us, the greatest writers of history not only tell us what happened, but why it happened. It is when historians come to grips with the “why” that, as Ford says, “the quality of the whole” is revealed.