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Ideas slung around a film-shoot
on 7 April 2010
Like the rest of the brilliant academics who have made a name through dazzling scholarship and cashed it in for big money TV series, Schama loses some of his intellectual synoptic brilliance by writing not, as implied by the title, a history of the USA that gives some indication as to how the future of the country might pan out, but a collection of stories that illuminate some of the ways in which the founding ideas of America have panned out over the past 3 centuries.
Schama pulled off the trick of combining book with TV series in his magesterial History of Britain. But Britain is a different type of historical beast - a deep, but relatively cohesive history with core substantive concepts - church, monarchy, parliament, around which the key shaping themes of British identity have developed. America has a much shorter, yet far more expansive history that encompasses a raft of themes. To name merely some: capitalism, power, clash of civilizations, a secular constitution in a Christian country, militarism without the corresponding desire for a global empire. It is impossible to do all these themes justice in a single volume that tells the history of America by drawing on stories from some of its architypal sons and daugthers - such as the steadfast General Montgomery Meigs, and, more recently, an Islamic American called Chuck who struggles with faith and identity in the post September 11 years.
The ideas in this book are clearly slung around the shooting schedule for the corresponding TV series. And the problem with this is what makes compelling TV doesn't necessarily yield crisp, rigorous historical analysis. Especially given the weight and range of themes Schama wrestles with here, like a 19th Century cowboy trying to marshall a stampede out on the long drive. Schama mixes personal experience, name dropping and journalism (the Iowa primaries where Obama made a key splash, a Downing Street dinner where he talks to George Bush, a trip to Denver Colorado), and uses such flimsy pretexts to draw out generalisations about how faith, army, race and ecomomics have cohered and shaped America out over the years. Sometimes the trick works -such as comparing the diligence of the early West Point cadets in nation building with the more bucaneering strategies of the military charged with sorting out Iraq post invasion. But often it doesn't. And at these moments Schama is left burbling purple prose platitudes about how the multi-racial melting pot of the USA gives much hope for the future, and how ironically Las Vegas may just be the springboard for solving global warming.
All well and good if you are some easy going, glib TV schmoozer. But Schama is not - he is one of our finest historians, with the rare quality these days of being comfortable in a range of time periods and across continents. He has the intellectual capacity to tackle the themes that are shaping the present, but like his fellow British historian Niall Ferguson (another brilliant scholar who now seems to only produce made for TV mush), he has sacrificed rigour for flashy dazzle. With the result that the serious lay reader of history - surely the target audience for such books - is likely to feel rather short changed.