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on 9 February 2017
To be honest I found this book hard to read. I think I would have found it a lot easier had Schama worked through US History chronologically as the book tended to jump around. There was next to nothing on the Colonial period as it jumps to the Civil war, you then find out this was because Schama was meeting with a descendent of a general who fought in it at the polls, then its on to Civil rights and then back to Clinton, Obama and beyond. I would have found it far more coherent and a better read had it followed a structure through the ages, not interspersed with chapters on personal reflection, experiences, and then off to talking about religion in America, The Puritans, Charles I and then back to Civil Rights.
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The book of the TV series, as usual with Schama, is so much more. An assessment of America's past at a time of apparent radical change - the 2008 presidential election is the prism through which Schama's narrative works (the result was not yet known when the book was published) - lies behind the book's title. But what would Schama say, now that we are three-quarters of the way through Obama's first (and only?) term? Well perhaps he has already said it on page twelve of this volume, set out in the prologue of this book: "Maybe this sense of an American rebirth was just so much wishful thinking?"

Like the TV series, the book comes in four chapters and follows their respective episodes quite well. But `the more' than Schama offers his readers, as opposed to his viewers results in these chapters being quite long, of one hundred pages or so each. Nevertheless, I read each chapter non-stop, so mesmerising are the stories he has to tell, so skilful the way of their telling. For sure, sometimes Schama lets his pen go too far; long, long sentences of descriptive power, yes, but when he talks of `saltwater taffee vendors' and `limp seersucker jackets', I have to wonder whether he's gone too native. (He informs us that he has lived half his life in the US already.)

This first chapter, `American War', informs us how much history matters. Schama takes us on an epic journey around American attitudes to fighting, from the opposition at the very beginning of the republic's founding, through the Philippines and right up to Abu Ghraib; from West Point to all points north, south, east and west. Did you know that the American has a brief but nasty naval war with the French post-revolution? Or that water torture was practised by US soldiers against Filipino rebels in the 1900s? And all this telling is built around an account of the life and career of Lincoln's quartermaster-general, Montgomery Meigs. Simply brilliant!

Chapter two - `American Fervour' - addresses America and religion. He writes, "The really interesting question perhaps was not why Americans were believers, for most of the world outside Europe and perhaps east Asia remained believers too, but why the British had stopped believing." (The author's verbs should here be converted into the present tense.) Schama's preferred explanation is "the bitter education of twentieth-century history", surprisingly ignoring (to a degree) the creation of the welfare state and smaller disparities in income inequality. But Schama again skilfully takes us back to the founding fathers and "the peculiarly American bargain between faith and freedom". The complications of slavery, however, cannot be ignored and Schama points to the church as being at the forefront of the battle for civil rights. Here, the story is long and Schama uncommonly is laboured. If there is such a concept as Schama-longueurs, here they are.

`What Is an American?' is the question posed in chapter three. The author returns to form with brilliant stories of the French, the Germans, the Spanish, brilliantly told. Schama briefs us on an interesting if cheeky chat he had with President George W Bush about Texas, before reminding us how the Mexicans once patrolled their Texan border to keep out the Americans. His narrative of the little-known big story of the Chinese contribution to American expansion into the west makes us realise that bigotry, paranoia, and, yes, ethnic cleansing were also part of the American dream.

Is there no limit to America? This is the question posed in the final chapter on `American Plenty'. Schama note that, "No on has yet won an election in the United States by lecturing American about limits, even if common sense suggests such homilies may be overdue." Schama addresses "the American sense of a national entitlement to plenty", whether it be oil, forests, water, or know-how. The acquisition of land and gold lies behind the telling of President Andrew Jackson's 1830 Indian Removal Act: "It was one of the most morally repugnant moments in American history, one that ought by rights to take its prime mover, the seventh president, off the currency of any self-respecting nation, ... the ethnic cleanser of the first democratic age."

Schama concludes his fascinating journey by looking at the relationship between the nation and its past. In times of trouble, he contends, American reaches for its past more fervently than most: "It's as though, at the most urgent moments of American decision, historical time folds in on itself and all of its shaping protagonists are there, like some ghostly chorus, to witness and instruct." Only a perceptive historian, and one who is himself steeped in American culture, could know whether that be true or not. Schama is clearly one such historian, and moreover one who is half an outsider looking in. This makes his stories about how America has arrived at its present state as sharply relevant as anyone's ever could. `The American Future - A History' is a perfect title.

This is a review of the original hardback edition. It contains some plates, a useful selection for further reading, and an index.
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on 12 August 2009
Having recently read David Reynold's excellent America: Empire of Liberty and Paul Johnson's comprehensive History of the American People - I did not think there was that much anyone could add. But Simon Schama's immense skill as a writer and historian suffuses the subject with freshness and originality. Weaving lived histories with significant events in American history - Schama breathes life into the characters and events, analysing momentus occasions and adding his own considerable insights into a subject he cleary has consummate knowledge of.
Familiar events such as the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement are viewed through the lived histories of characters that were there to witness history unfolding - and Schama brilliantly uses letters and diaries to create a real sense of immanence and urgency - rather than just rehashing other historical accounts.
The causes and effects of these epoch changing events, clearly illustrate how America has been shaped - and Schama frequently jumps to the present to address issues that have been ongoing problems in the country - such as immigration. A question he puts to George W Bush at a Downing Street dinner. That is the strength of this book and the main difference between Schama's work and the others. It is not a linear historical narrative - sometimes the writing has the kind of authority of a witness to the events, and at times reads like a novel.
I think Schama's book is written in a very immaginative way that few writers would have dared attempt - moving backwards and forwards through history and the present. But this style allows you to view the history from a different perspective. I highly recommend The American Future.America, Empire of Liberty: A New HistoryHistory of the American PeopleDivine Magnetic Lands: A Journey in AmericaMade in AmericaThe First Salute: View of the American Revolution
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Let me say to begin with that this book is not in anyway a history of the United States-how could it be at less than 400 pages? However, don't let that put you off-what Schama has done here is to offer a history of American ideas especially those enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The real theme here is how Americans have lived up to those promises and when they have not. However, what makes Schama's account particularly refreshing is his marshalling of evidence to demonstrate the enduring power of these founding principles: whilst the obvious American betrayals are here of the Native indians, African Americans in the South or Chinese railway labourers they are effectively balanced by the stories of Montgomery Miegs the uncorruptable American soldier who regarded his duty as the defence of the constitution or examples of the rich diversity of worship which thrives under the guarantees of religious toleration which were a cornerstone of the Founding Father's concept of liberty. Schama is very much the micro-historian in this book deploying well-chosen personal lifestories to make the broader point-it works much better than some generalising narrative-being both highly readable and often genuinely informative. These personal perspectives are interspersed with sketches from the 2008 Presidential Election Campaign where Schama unashamedly wears his heart on his sleeve, seeing it as the moment when Obama had to triumph to restore faith not in America, but in its guiding principles and values. Of course, not everyone will share this view, but I recommend this book wholeheartedly to all, but especially to Americans of all political views and Europeans who have indulged in America bashing to excess. America's future Schama's stimulating account reminds us, has a much stronger underpinning of principle than that of many countries who despise it.
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on 31 March 2017
nothing to add
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on 15 April 2017
This book was topical when it was written in 2008, when Obama was running for the Presidency. Now that we live in the post Trump era, it seems strangely out of time. However, there are some fascinating and deliciously ironic stories. For example the story of how the Mexicans tried to ban American immigration into Texas in the 1820s and '30s, and of how the Americans tried to restrict Chinese immigration into California and the West in the final decades of the 19th century.

Simon Schama is billed here as the 'master story-teller'; but, on the basis of this book, the question remains as to whether he is more of a journalist than a historian. He tells the tale; but does he really explain anything beyond the tale?
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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.
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This isn't so much of a history of America as it is a history of how Americans view the future. Perhaps of all countries America has always been the most progressive and forward-looking, not in the usual liberal sense of the words, but in the sense of moving forward, seeing what's next. The most obvious example of this is the exploring of the West and Manifest Destiny. Obviously this spirit of pushing forwards, pushing out has casualties, and this book explores that particularly well - the cataclysm of the Civil War, the nativist backlash to immigration, the betrayal of American principles with the Mexican war, the genocide of the Native Americans. Schama writes wonderfully well; he has a very witty, wry tone, and this is an excellent read, albeit a little fragmented.
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VINE VOICEon 22 October 2008
This book is for those of you who like history as a sweep of events and with interlocking sections that you have to piece together to get your overall picture. Although this makes reference to the current election I think its only because I think the author sees the two candidates as potentially the Hamilton and Jefferson characters of this age - one quite happy to use American military strength and the other very sey against it. And its this split in the US approach that the four sections of the book address. The four sections cover war, religion , what is an american, and the belief you can have it all if you just try hard enough and while I don;t think you get a full final view I think the observation at the end that the role of government is about making people happy and not to destroy life is hard to argue with.
Apart from the violence of the Civil War which had some horrific parts what these sections bring to vivid life in the internal violence in US history , the programs against the Cherokee, the violence and hatred against the black population as they battled for civil rights, the mis tratment of Chinese and Mexicans and they were killed with impunity and with legal sanction makes for some grim reading. The section on religion makes it very clear why religion plays such a big part in US politics and you can see why as it was and till is a vital way to express a sense of community. The best part for me was the section on multiculturalism where its clear that you can retain a sense of your roots in the US AND still be an American with a fierce committment to the country
It was with a sense of diappointment that I finished this book simply bacause I had not had enough of the American story which is spite of the things done still seems essentially optimistic - and so if Obama wants to use the phase 'Yes we can' then this book will help explain why his audience responds to it
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on 2 May 2013
This book is NOT for the general reader. Every 10th word is one I do not know. The book assumes a lot of prior knowledge, and not just basic knowledge, it assumes a serious and detailed knowledge of US history, this could be read as an embellishment/deeper understanding of reasons behind things. However it jumps around the centuries and misses out huge important chunks of important stuff. It goes into massive amounts of detail on certain points and no detail or mention of others.
Reading this book reminds me of some of my Cambridge University lectures - utterly incomprehensible but no one dares to admit it. Undoubtedly Schama is an academic expert but has no ability to write for the general reader, so do not believe those reviews who say it is.
It's impossible to get an idea of what happened when. It's like he's talking to a bunch of other academics and uses lots of clever clever shorthand references to other stuff that leave most folks feeling thick. I hated the few chapters I read and felt a huge relief when I left it in a cafe.
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