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So Much Wishful Thinking?
on 31 October 2011
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.