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The American Future: A History Hardcover – May 19, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Past performance may not guarantee future returns, but it's the best we have to go on, contends this lively meditation on American history. Looking back from the tumultuous 2008 election campaign, historian Schama (NBCC-award winner for Rough Crossings) ponders four themes in American history as they played out in the lives of historical figures: the tension between militarism and liberty in the careers of Civil War general Montgomery Meigs and his family; the progressive influence of evangelical Protestantism on abolitionist and civil rights crusaders; America's conflicted attitudes toward immigrants as seen through the adventures of 18th-century French émigré J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur; and Americans' profligate exploitation of the land and water in an elegy for the Cherokee tribe. Schama's wide-ranging narratives wander between contemporary reportage (For a minute or two after the photo op, George Bush was left to his own devices and came my way) and fluent, richly literate history. He's alive to irony and hypocrisy in the American story—Mexicans of the 1820s, he notes, shuddered at the uncouth Yankee immigrants flooding into Texas—but Schama is optimistic that the nation's perennial openness and complexity can see it through the storm clouds ahead. (June)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
As the adaptation of a television series, The American Future treads a fine line between history and a kind of quick-cut shorthand that tries to neatly define the virtues of America and Americans (the Miami Herald deemed the genre the "Earnest Television Spinoff"). Simon Schama, a shrewd and experienced scholar, writer, and commentator, makes his points clearly (the biographical sketches, particularly of lesser-known figures such as the Meigses, an 18th- and 19th-century military family, can be affecting) and chooses his examples well. Still, some readers may be put off by the author's apparent lack of objectivity and a tendency to underdeliver in making any substantive predictions based on his reading of history.
Top customer reviews
His starting point is what he sees as a turning point in American history: a historic election in which an African American appears, for the very first time, to be a serious contender for the White House. Simon Schama discusses a number of defining issues for American life and for America's role in the world stage: America and war, America and slavery and civil rights, American ethnicity and immigration, and American innovation and industry. In each case he moves between the present and the past, capturing timely anecdotes and encounters and interpreting them by looking to history.
It's a good read; Simon Schama writes quite well and knows his stuff and knows how to tell it. While reading it, it struck me that the effort to capture a pivotal moment in American history through anecdotes that may or may not resonate in the future may doom it to being a book of the present, but that his thoughtful analyses of history worked against that. It also struck me, what is not usually the case, that this material was so well suited to television that I might have preferred the PBS documentary version that this is companion to, which I haven't had a chance to see. I can imagine what it would be like and think it makes for rich documentary material: an introduction to real individuals with complex attitudes, like the Iowa farmer he begins with, and a historical look at details that resonate with those attitudes. In any case, this is an enjoyable and timely book. Schama knows how to bring American history to life, so that this doesn't ever read like a dry and scholarly tome; recommended to history buffs, and to any who want to understand the complex roots of sometimes contradictory attitudes that vie for prominence in American life.
The career of the highly accomplished historian Simon Schama took a turn about a decade ago when he became a television personality. Since then his books, including this one, have been spin-offs from BBC productions.
The major sections of The American Future: A History correspond to his BBC episodes on war and the military, religion, immigration, and economic abundance, a good selection of topics if one aims to cover a big slice of the American past in just four hours on TV. Characteristic of a television documentary, the narrative aggregates generally brief scenes that jump around quite a bit chronologically, with the narrator himself (Schama) sometimes on stage as the inquiring journalist. The war section, for instance, starts at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day 2007 with Schama's visit relating to the Iraq War; reflects on the Civil War; shifts to the founding fathers' views on soldiers and soldiering; introduces the Meigs family, which has produced a long line of distinguished military men; moves to the history of West Point; circles forward to another Veterans Day, now in San Antonio in 2008 with Schama visiting Hispanic vets; and moves on in the same fashion from there (that is only the beginning).
Schama's chief characters are not the usual suspects, although many make significant appearances (Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and so on). Rather, he features several men and women possibly known to diligent historians, but generally not the folks you learned about in high school. Montgomery Meigs, who was the quartermaster general for the Union during the Civil War, receives considerable attention. Readers will also hear quite a bit from or about Jarena Lee, a black female itinerant preacher in the early nineteenth century; J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, an early promoter of American agriculture and immigration; the Chicago social worker Grace Abbott, a Jane Addams protégée; and Fred Bee, a Caucasian attorney who courageously represented Chinese workers in the west in the late nineteenth century, to name just a few.
Schama seems to have certain thematic points to make in each section, though readers must troll carefully to find them. For the most part his observations are not original, some are even hackneyed, but they gain heft from the stories in which he has framed them. For example, he claims freedom of religion is "the big American story," equipping Americans to fight "the war of toleration versus conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty." He concludes that mass immigration turned out to be compatible with both liberty and prosperity. And he agrees with Tocqueville that Americans have been torn between moving on to new opportunities and staying put and improving what they already have.
As one has come to expect from him, much of what Schama has to say is phrased artfully. "The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, lightheaded with anticipation," he writes. "The American past is baggy with sobering truth. In between is the quicksilver Now, beads of glittering elation that slip and scatter, resisting prosaic definition."
"Obama wants to personify all of these tenses," Schama suggests. He believes that the election of Obama, an African American, "is of incalculable importance to the resilience of the American democratic experiment." In spite of the recent economic disaster Schama "remain[s] convinced that the American future, shaped by the epic of its past, will turn fair once again."
If there is to be renewal "it will be because [Americans] draw so ceaselessly on the lives and wisdoms of their ancestors," Schama declares. He claims that almost every American he spoke to on a recent trip invoked historical figures as though they were not at all distant from the present.
I would like to share Schama's optimism, but I am not convinced based solely on what he offers in The American Future. For one thing, I suspect that objective surveys would show that Americans are not as historically conscious as he suggests. But more to the point, there is a disconnect between such optimism and much of the history Schama recounts in this volume, where the evidence "is baggy with the sobering truth" of, for example, slavery, the forced displacement of Cherokees, persecution of Chinese laborers, unsustainable consumption of limited natural resources, unnecessary wars, and numerous other regrettable departures from our proclaimed ideals. As always, we hope for much to be the same in the future, but for much to be different as well.
The pre-television Schama produced big and captivating studies that became essential reading for anyone seriously interested in European history and Western culture, including his chronicle of the French Revolution, his interpretation of the Dutch Golden Age, and his penetrating reflections on landscape and memory. Comparatively, The American Future clearly sits on a lower tier. Nevertheless, it is perhaps not possible for Schama to write an uninteresting book, and most readers are likely to find sufficient rewards for the time they may invest in this one.