Saturday, June 11, 2011

100 Books 29 - Simon Schama's THE AMERICAN FUTURE: A HISTORY

For this reader, Simon Schama’s The American Future: A History is read in the shadow of three other formidable and remarkable books: Robert D. Kaplan’s stunningly prescient An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, Marc Reisner’s searing Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water , and Schama’s own, luminously strange Landscape And Memory . These books provide a lot of shade to the reader opening up The American Future, but it’s dappled shade; much of The American Future shines brilliantly all on its own, a pleasure to read (especially after what I’ve endured lately, reading-wise) and an edifying one

I come from Wyoming, a place Schama often mentions as he discusses the anti-Chinese race riot that took place in our railroad town of Rock Springs, and the expedition exploring the Colorado River that John Wesley Powell launched from nearby Green River, which means, among other things, that my education in American history is a piecemeal affair. We begin to learn Wyoming history exhaustively in fourth grade, and many of us again got a good booster shot of same in high school, but American history? I got it as far as the Reconstruction, the Civil War treated mostly as a reason why there were occasional Buffalo soldiers and why a lot of the guys who came West to man our forts and protect settlers from Injuns no longer had their birth allotment of limbs. Other Wyoming students’ mileage may vary, but that was my experience. The rest I’ve had to learn on my own, which I have done rather desultorily as many other subjects have caught my attention over the years (have a look at my other blog, Suppertime Sonnets, for a sampling of those!) so I am fully as culpable as our public education system for my continued sense of ignorance – but this has also left me capable of being surprised and even delighted by stories of lesser-known-to-me types like Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and all the generations of the Meigs family and Fred Bee, like the controversies that played out in the founding of our national military academy at West Point…

I come away from reading The American Future with a renewed gratitude and respect for the Free Exercise Clause as well as the Establishment Clause (I’ve a history of finding the latter more important than the former due to my own secular bias), a renewed sense of mourning and sympathy for the tragedy that befell the Cherokee (my own ancestors; it’s unlikely I would be here writing these words had not the hateful Andrew Jackson and his cheerleaders sent the girl history would eventually know as Nancy Jane Sherrod’s parents packing off to Oklahoma, where she eventually met “Old” James Sherrod and married him and moved to Wyoming to establish our odd clan, five – wait, now SIX generations of Wyomingites living on the high, dry plains that John Wesley Powell clucked at and observed would never make good farmland) – these and more seeming more appropriate from the reading of a good history book than from something with a title like The American Future.

But this is a history of the American future, another subtle and elusive concept for a book from the wonderful Simon Schama (I’m still not entirely sure I grasp what his earlier Landscape and Memory is essentially about: exploring the very much domesticated and undeniably altered territories we like to imagine as unspoiled nature, or as sullied nature, but really can’t deny bear our imprint everywhere, has felt the impact of our imagination, our policy, our activity… but it’s also a survey of culture and language, as all Schama’s books are. Tricky, tricky.). Chronologically Schama wanders back and forth in each section; the story of West Point and our military (that part which most strongly evokes the Kaplan book I mentioned above; Kaplan’s westward journey begins at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and is as strongly colored by his initial conversations there with modern citizen soldiers as the first section of The American Future is by the story of the tension between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions of what a national American military academy should be – Jefferson’s vision prevailed, which is why there is a focus on works and engineering there to this day, which I, for one, celebrate – especially now as our National Guard is busy helping my old hometown keep the flooding North Platte River from destroying it) zig-zags between the establishment of its founding principles, stories of those principles in action examined through the lens of Montgomery Meigs, who served in the Civil War as the Union Army’s Quartermaster General and deserves to be much more storied for what he achieved in that position, the founding of Arlington National Cemetery, and the modern experience of visiting that cemetery. It should be dizzyingly difficult to follow Schama’s thread as he careers through and around all of this, but it isn’t – his prose is too easy on the eyes and brain, for a start, and his British-born perspective, an outsider’s and a lover’s enthusiasm evident in every page, is too beguiling and contagious.

The sections on religious life and the settlement of the West (and the Dustbowl!) continue this theme or lack of theme with the same energy and curiosity, illustrating a lot of competing visions for what America’s future was going to be, and examining, a bit, how those visions compare and contrast with what has really become of this country. I could have used a bit more of the latter to balance out all that history, but am entirely satisfied with what I did get, a refreshing and thought-provoking read from one of my favorite writers of non-fiction. Landscape and Memory and The Power of Art are still my favorites of his, but this one ranks right up there.

Bravo, Simon. Again.

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