Saturday, 8 November 2008

"The American Future", by Simon Schama (Bodley Head/Random House)

An in-depth look at four facets of America’s nature.

In The American Future, British historian Simon Schama shines a light on four facets of America that help make it what it the nation we all love or hate: “American War”, “American Fervour”, “American Plenty”, and “What Is An America?”. He does this by looking at both the large figures of American legend and history, but also lesser-known (if at all) Americans who have left their mark on the world’s most powerful nation. Taking advantage of the recently-ended election, Schama tries his hand at campaign journalism for his prologue, which sets the scene (and style, in many ways) for the chapters to come.

American War, the first and longest part of the book, discusses the often contentious place of warfare and the military in America’s national character, and the militarism that permeates its society. Using the military academy at West Point and the Meigs family as touchstones for his history, Schama paints a very personal picture of how the Meigs family left their mark on America: Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster for Grant’s Union army during the civil war, designed the Capitol’s dome, and set up Arlington Memorial Cemetary on his former classmate and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate. Throughout the discussion, Schama draws our attention to the rival factions among the Founding Fathers (specifically, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the latter of which was the more bellicose) and how these initial squabbles have continued through over two centuries of America’s existence.

American Fervour. It seems everyone is ready to mock the religiosity of America, but what Schama does instead, is just look at the roots of religion in America. He discusses the roots of religion in the US – Jefferson’s declaration of religious and intellectual freedom for the State of Virginia, which he and Washington campaigned to make official throughout the new country. He touches on how it is that America enshrined these freedoms as a “natural right”, yet it remains one of the most religious Western nations with religion creeping ever more into national politics; covering also religion as an impetus to rid the United States of “the National Sin” (slavery), its importance to the Civil Rights Movement, and its role in Prohibition. Again, Schama looks at the Presidents and “smaller” Americans who shaped religion in the US (including Charles Grandison Finney, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Billy Sunday), as well as the evolvement of the church from small chapels to the mega-churches of Evangelical America.

American Plenty. This was an excellent chapter about how continental expansion has affected the American mindset when it comes to resources and the can-do, “boundless” attitude. Discussing how expansion has led to such engineering advances and marvels as the Hoover Dam (and, by extension, Las Vegas), but also disasters such as the Dust Bowl. This was a surprisingly interesting chapter, as I'm not usually that taken with tracts on agriculture and so on. Schama's use of real-life examples of families affected by resource depletion and so on makes the subject matter more compelling and interesting by giving it a face, rather than treating it in the abstract.

What Is An American? (Perhaps this section could have been entitled “American Ethnicity”, to keep with the same format?) An important section of the book, given the ever-changing notion of what and who is American, and the contentious issue of immigration that fires up political bases of both parties every few years. Schama discusses the wide range of ethnicities that have poured into the American make-up, and how each affects the character of certain regions. Schama shows how initial beliefs that the US would be a land of free immigrants have changed as the source of these immigrants has changed. He also shines a light on the darker side of the American melting-pot – such as the anti-immigration policies of the Know-Nothing party, the paranoia of unchecked-immigration of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson’s harsh treatment of Native Americans, the abuse of Chinese labourers after they built America’s railroads. Schama’s not averse to showing the darker underbelly of the United States, which makes the book all the more useful and interesting.

A superb achievement, The American Future is one of few books that create an engaging history of America while not being yet another volume of Presidential biography. Despite his years as a university professor (and the assumed stuffiness that should bring), Schama has a gift for fluid prose that allows one to breeze through the book at a remarkable clip. He provides an occasional chuckle as he points out an absurdity or inherent contradiction, dealing with it not in an aloof manner, but the lighter touch of someone who has some genuine affection for the US, warts and all. Sometimes these lighter moments can detract from the book, though; such as the times he injects his opinions of certain officials he may not like. It is therefore not flawless. Schama can also come across as being indulgent with his choice of overly poetic phrases and imagery, and perhaps a few too many references to his own opinion or experiences.

The American Future is nonetheless engaging and informative, filled with superb historical detail, depth and is mostly even-handed. A must read for all interested in understanding a little more about America and the components of its collective psyche.

Also try: The American Future DVD (2008, BBC - for those who maybe don’t have the time for the whole book, or want something with more on the 2008 Election); Robert D Kaplan's An Empire Wilderness - Travels Into America's Future (1999)

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