The American Future: A History
By Simon Schama
Published by the Bodley Head, 2008
Available at Asia Books, Bt750
Reviewed by James Eckardt
Special to The Nation
Sometimes it's best not to read the back cover or flyleaf of a new book. There are 30 or 40 authors - my favourites - whose books I simply snatch off the shelf. Let them surprise me.
This is what I did with Simon Schama's latest,
"The American Future", though I've read none of his 13 other books, which include a trilogy on the history of Great Britain. But I saw the BBC series he did on British history from the Stone Age to the present day. He's a British professor with a donnish air and a wicked wit.
Having read none of its predecessors, I was hugely surprised by the first pages of this one. The scene is the Iowa caucus in January 2008 where Barack Obama scored his first improbable victory. The prologue opens:
"I can tell you, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead, because I was there: 7.15pm Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 534, Theodore Roosevelt High. I know this as I was regularly checking my watch, and besides you couldn't miss the schoolroom clock, its old white face the object of generations of teenage hatred and longing."
What follows is 22 pages of high-powered prose in the madcap New Journalism fashion of the young Tom Wolfe of the 1960s, as Schama describes the night history was made. He was there for Obama's victory speech.
"Into the brutally modernist concrete convention centre flowed the full river of Obama Nation: black schoolkids in hot yellow T-shirts, ready to romp; elderly whites who looked as though they'd just come back from the Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth Weekend; college students waving their arms; and a whole lot of people in between.
"Up the escalator came the falsetto ululations that are - peculiarly - the American cry of victory, the whoops preceding the faces and bodies ...
"Inside, the place was heaving and swaying, dancing and clapping. Gospel singing had turned it into the instant church of true believers and the congregation - for Iowa is not a conspicuously black state - was just about most of America: all sizes, races, generations."
Next he's at the Veteran's Day ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, 2007, where Vice President Dick Cheney is giving a speech.
Schama watches him "move on to the next homily like a tank rolling over a cat". Again he scans the crowd: "Studded biker jackets, decorated with Vietnam insignia - 'Hells' Harriers', 'Dragon Breath' - draped the gut-swagged bodies of old grunts but behind the bandanas of yore they had lost their heavy-metal menace, their righteously roaring grievance.
"Now they were just living exhibits in the museum of stoned age warfare, the walking wounded of the Sh-Na Na-tion."
From here he moves into a chronicle of the Meigs dynasty, a family of warriors who played prominent parts in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II. He adopts more a conventional historian's tone, only to rev up the prose on his return to the present, at a meeting of Hispanic veterans at the Drop-Zone Caf? in San Antonio, Texas, on March 3, 2008.
The pattern is set, moving back and forth between past and present, delving into the origin of the American form of government, religious revivals, the great immigrant movements, the Cherokee Nation, the Dust Bowl, the civil-rights movement.
Schama is capable of summoning up images of breathtaking clarity. He describes Ronald Reagan's sunny vision of the American dream and contrasts this with a dour Jimmy Carter on the night of their presidential debate. Here is what he saw:
"Watching the two together on television was like beholding a happy elderly parrot, crest cocked to one side, confront a gloomy creature of the deep, the fish lips parting occasionally to reveal a frightening grin."
Schama is not immune to the perennial hope of the American Dream. Arching overall, in counterpoint to all his tales from history, is Obama's call for renewal:
"Listen to me, says Obama, listen to me and you will catch the American future. But I pay attention and hear the American past, not a dragweight on 'change', just the solid ground beneath the high-sailing dirigible of his rhetoric.
"The American future is all vision, numinous, informed, light-headed with anticipation. 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 these tenses."
It's an awful lot to live up to.