The American Future: A History
by Simon Schama
Ecco, 400 pages, $29.99
It’s not easy for an author to disqualify his book from serious consideration with his first sentence, but in The American Future: A History, Simon Schama comes close: “I can tell you exactly, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead because I was there: 7:15 P.M. Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 53, Theodore Roosevelt High.”
He’s talking about Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, and he is writing entirely without irony. Worse, he’s just getting started. He continues in this ideologically besotted manner through most of his twenty-two-page prologue and then revisits it in a postelection epilogue celebrating Obama’s rescue of the nation from the depredations visited on it by George W. Bush: “The America the world wanted but assumed it had forever lost had returned. The Statue of Liberty was no longer a bad joke.” And he adopts a prose style regrettably appropriate to his middlebrow populism, writing, for example, that, as Iowans gathered to caucus, “they felt the moment: Jewish grannies; teenage students; businesswomen and doctors. Americans.”
How, one wonders, can a distinguished scholar, a prize-winning historian whose previous work has ranged intelligently across cultures and over the centuries, write such stuff—especially when it introduces and concludes an ambitious study of American culture meant, in the publisher’s words, to serve as “a Tocquevillian odyssey for our time”? What makes this more puzzling and disappointing is that between the bookend silliness there is in fact a good deal of the deft and inventive historical talent evident in Schama’s studies of the Dutch, French, and British past. The author’s investigation of American history is far from flawless, but at least it is written for thoughtful adults.
As his title suggests, Schama believes we can make out what lies ahead by understanding what happened in the past. More particularly, he wants to take lessons from competing traditions in the American past to select preferred options for the future. To that end, he examines four recurring points of conflict in the struggle for national definition: war, religion, immigration, and natural abundance. On none of these is he anything like a Tocqueville for our time, but along the way his often ingenious explorations in social history, interspersed with contemporary vignettes, provide arresting, if greatly uneven, perspectives on the national experience.
Schama is at his most artful in his discussion of American attitudes toward war, attitudes he traces in significant part through the history of the Meigs family, which has provided continual military leadership to the nation from the Revolution to the present.
The skillfully constructed Meigs family narrative—with special attention to Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general of the Union army in the Civil War—serves to illustrate Schama’s argument that the nation has been served well by its aversion to a warrior culture, its creative use of the military for constructive purposes (as in the Army Corps of Engineers), and its instinct for avoiding unnecessary wars. Schama notes lapses—Theodore Roosevelt’s militarism, the misguided conflicts with Mexico and Spain (and, of course, Iraq)—but, all in all, his esteem for the Meigs family tradition extends to the culture that nourished it.
Schama is similarly impressed by how well, in its religious life, America has conducted the “unavoidable dialogue between faith and freedom, conviction and toleration.” This is a difficult topic for Schama. His “agnostic-skeptical” instincts make him mistrustful of religion and put him firmly in the Thomas Jefferson school of radical separationism, even to the point of arguing, however implausibly, that the First Amendment erects a wall of separation not just between church and state but between morality and politics.
But he is an attentive enough historian to recognize that great moral crusades in America have more often been fueled by religious impulses than by rationalist and humanist ones. And he is an honest enough historian to concede, if with evident strain, that the religious fervor driving pro-life advocates today is “not altogether different” from what drove opponents of slavery in the nineteenth century. Schama is often shaky on facts and his take on American religion, past and present, is badly skewed—he pays minimal attention to the majority of Americans who are Catholic or mainstream Protestant—but he is capable of sympathy and even admiration for a religious settlement whose sensibility is alien to him.
On immigration, Schama is utterly unconflicted. An immigrant himself—he was born and educated in England but has lived most of his adult life in the United States—he has no patience with restrictions or with fears about assimilation. The one interesting exception here is his feeling for the ironies of the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s: The Protestant nativists were virulently anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, but the Irish were themselves contemptuous of blacks, free or slave, while the Catholicism they practiced was officially opposed to freedom of conscience.
Over the years, most defenders of immigration have appealed to the unifying notion of the melting pot, but Schama, like many contemporary intellectuals, has little use for the metaphor’s “white-bread insipidity.” He makes fun of Henry Ford’s insistence that his immigrant workers study English and take pride in learning to say “I am an American.” Schama prefers cultural pluralism to the melting pot, and he paints a romantic sketch of an America that is “a rich adjacency of cultural neighborhoods.” There’s an important and complicated argument to be had about immigration and assimilation, but Schama, rather than engage those who disagree with him, simply dismisses them as bigots. He would do well to reread his discussion of the Know-Nothings and apply its complexifying lessons to the contemporary situation.
Schama’s discursive method—alternating abruptly between past and present, historical analysis and personal observation—is most baroquely on display in his discussion of “American Plenty.” He begins with an excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and then sets off on a rhetorical road trip of his own, ranging from musings on America’s restless and expansive spirit and its assumption of “cost-free abundance,” to Billy Bartram’s botanical explorations of the southern American colonies in the 1770s, to the Cherokee Indians and Andrew Jackson’s controversial Indian removal policy in the 1830s, to John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in 1869, to debates over water policy in the trans-Mississippi West, to the dust storms of the 1930s, to a 1980s cross-country flight by the author in the company of a highly eccentric Russian—and to much, much else, all in fewer than sixty pages.
It’s a dizzying, bravura performance, intended, one gathers, to explore the tensions between questing ambitions and necessary limits, and to suggest how ambitions and limits might be reconciled to form a common national purpose. But the relation between the parts and the whole is so uncertain that an argument meant to be subtle and allusive ends up baffling and obscure.
Schama’s overall view of the American condition, however, is not obscure at all. As a historian, he may be modernist in method, but he is a very traditional Whig in substance, celebrating a liberal past and anticipating an equally liberal future. In Schama’s telling, the American story has always been a dialogue between “unbounded faith in heroic individualism and the obligations of mutual community.”
Ronald Reagan inaugurated an era that glorified the individual and demonized government, but, with the near collapse of the financial system and the election of Obama, things have been set right. As it has always done at its best, America has recalibrated the balance between “capitalist energy and democratic liberalism” in favor of the latter. And, as with his political hero, Schama insists that this choice is not only politically and morally correct but cost-free: “American independence will not be jeopardized by American interdependence.”
About that, we shall see. But Schama’s political commitments have an effect on his scholarship, and the jejune ideologue of the book’s introduction and conclusion does manage to influence the historical analysis of the rest of the book. Thus it is not enough for Schama to denounce Jackson’s Indian removal policy as mistaken and cruel. It is a “monstrous crime,” an act of “ferocious immorality,” so “morally repugnant” that its perpetrator’s image ought not be present on the currency “of any self-respecting nation.” Similarly, Schama finds it necessary, in cataloging the moral failures of immigration restrictionists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to drag in gratuitous references to the Nazis and the Final Solution.
In these and other instances, moral grandiosity gets in the way of moral seriousness. It is unfortunate that academics who address contemporary affairs so often lose any pretense of scholarly detachment. It is even more distressing when they carry their ideological intensities into the work that marks them as scholars in the first place.
James Nuechterlein is senior editor of First Things.