The American Future: A History

Historian Simon Schama offers a portrait of America with its complexities and contradictions.

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William Faulkner once famously wrote that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” a quote that aptly describes the perspective of Simon Schama’s latest book. In The American Future: A History, the eminent British historian and Columbia University professor offers a kaleidoscopic view of our national identity – by way of examining war, immigration, religion, and prosperity.

He sets off these themes with the 2008 presidential election, “impregnated with history,” an event that Schama likens to Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural in 1801, when Jefferson similarly spoke out against divisive rhetoric, proclaiming that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Weaving in original reportage, analysis, and historical events, Schama investigates where our nation of boundless appetite and ambition might be headed. The book (a companion to his BBC documentary series) is both a celebration and a wake-up call. “The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation,” he writes. “The American past is baggy with sobering truth.” The author is particularly harsh about our country’s recent past, notably “the woeful performance of [former president George W. Bush] and his hapless maladministration.”

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How might America’s past and future be reconciled? Can they be? Although it’s too soon to tell, Schama ponders the notion of an “American resurrection” by way of Barack Obama’s transformative victory. With his election, “American democracy, trapped in a deep freeze of alienation, mistrust, and indifference, began to thaw,” Schama writes.

In the last eight years, among other disturbing developments, the unequal distribution of wealth in the US has grown wider than at any time in five decades. Schama writes that “if calamities mostly not of the people’s doing have eaten away at the faith in an American future, it is just as well that it falls to a new president to begin the daunting work of reassurance and repair with a clean sheet and, for the time being, with a full measure of the people’s trust.”

He isn’t striving for objectivity; this book is part history, part polemic. As a scholar and an outsider in his adopted country, he views the Bush administration as an unmitigated disaster. Yet the author is smart enough to (mostly) keep his opinions to himself, and let others do the talking – whether through contemporary interviews or quotes from historical figures.

Describing how the US military lost its way in the quagmire in Iraq, Schama dips into the past to describe Jefferson’s chartering of West Point, conceived as an elite academy that would create “a cadre of guardians who would stand against any threats to civil freedom.” The mission of these men was to be “nation-builders, the engineers of democracy,” he writes pointedly. “In the Jeffersonian mind that has always been what the American military has been for!”

He cites other historical figures for whom the gratuitous, bellicose use of the military seemed a “perversion” of everything democracy stood for – including Mark Twain, who saw turn-of-the-century American foreign policy as one of brute subjugation rather than the spread of freedom. His public tirades were deemed unpatriotic; Theodore Roosevelt once admitted that he felt like skinning Twain alive.

Schama’s investigation of the grievous consequences of war is not merely academic. He strikes a personal note in mentioning a small cemetery in his upstate New York town, where one serviceman’s grave is particularly meaningful. It the burial spot of Kyu-Chay, a soldier killed in the mountains of Afghanistan. Schama knew him and was friendly with his parents, the Korean owners of a local dry cleaner.

The author describes walking in one day to find the entire store covered in white flowers, along with a death notice. When he awkwardly hugs Kyu-Chay’s father, the grieving man “leaned forward, falling into the proffered embrace, crumpling into mute anguish, shoulders trembling.” It’s one of the book’s most affecting moments, and handled with subtlety and grace.

“The American Future” also delves into our long history of excess, in which having no sense of limitation is both blessing (a grand sense of adventure and exploration) and curse (relentless exploitation of natural resources in the name of progress). Although Schama claims that no candidate has ever won an election by lecturing the country on its limits, and that “such homilies may be overdue,” Obama did just that and prevailed nonetheless.

The author breezily writes that roused Americans can “turn on a dime” from their wasteful ways, and that as a nation we can “convert indignation into action and before you know it there’s a whole new United States in the neighbourhood.” His sunny, snappy generalization arguably borders on the absurd. Elsewhere, however, Schama wisely avoids such platitudes.

He’s especially adroit at studying our historical ambivalence toward immigrants, and how religious ideology has shaped our identity. (He notes that American evangelism has always puzzled “habitually secular, skeptical Europeans.”)

American history is endlessly rich and fascinating, but Schama’s travelogue makes it come alive in a wonderfully accessible way. Sure, some of his pronouncements seem a bit obvious, but he includes so many surprising moments (an amusingly candid off-the-cuff encounter with George W. Bush, for instance) that all is forgiven. Schama happens to be a marvelous storyteller, too. Never condescending, his portrait of America’s complexities and contradictions is entertaining, provocative, and above all, hopeful.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of several anthologies, including “Poems for America.” She is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.

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