The first word in Simon Schama’s most recent publication, _The American Future: A History_ comes from Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson; two patriots whose enduring legacy lies in their names’ recognition the world over. Indeed, recognition is not confined to scholars of history. Perhaps Jefferson’s quotation is the most prescient, ‘history, by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future’.
It serves as a pithy summary of the book’s pitch at any rate: contemporary America, standing on the brink of an historic election (it was published before Obama’s landslide), climatic devastation, and economic turmoil, faces an uncertain future. Reaffirmations of the true national character – for Schama constituting resourcefulness, complexity, and moral rigour- are sorely needed. The process through which this self-searching must take place, and the author optimistically believes it has already begun, is the examination of history; to build ourselves a future we must look to the past; _The American Future: A History_. No doubt hence Jefferson’s opening remarks.
Just to keep twenty-first century America mulling over in the periphery of our consciousness, Schama peppers _The American Future_ with snapshots of the present day and local democracy; the caucus in Des Moines is coloured by scenes of glowing political activity, radiating through the core of the reader. Before you even have a chance to feel pessimistic about the state of US politics, fervent campaigners are depicted that might win over even the most obstinate cynic. In making politics not only seem interesting, but vital to our very being, Schama’s prose is second only to Hunter S. Thompson’s heroic _Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972_.
Of course Schama is no gonzo merchant. The American Future is a history of careful truth. It is accurate without pedantry, and eclectic without losing focus. It has the ability to largely hold our attention throughout, though its most enduring elements are somewhat idiosyncratic. My embarrassing affection for etymology is satisfied by the revelation that to ‘take a stand’ on something is refreshingly literal. Votes in the caucus are determined by the corner of the room in which the participants stand. More endearing is Schama’s humour, which, sparingly unleashed, resounds beautifully in a scene where the writer is riding high in the Colorado Rockies after a day’s teaching. His reverie is shattered by a business executive’s profuse thanks for a seminar in Hobbes and Locke.
While occasionally dipping into the present, Schama divides his book into four broad themes: American War, American Fervour, American Plenty, and What Is An American? In the first two sections we are made acquainted with the Meigs clan – servicemen and West Point alumni throughout the ages – religion in America – from WASPs to Baptists – and the theme of abolition. The latter two explore the less savoury themes of race hate and vitriol reserved for Chinese-Americans specifically, though covering immigration in general, and finally expansion into the Frontier. The consequences of US consumption and hubris being felt first by the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, and later by the farmers in the Dustbowl.
Of course, comparatively young though US history is, Schama doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to cover everything. The twentieth century is not as represented as it could have been, though given the tacit message of reclaiming an uncorrupted American spirit ready for the twenty-first century, this is perhaps of little importance. The most significant bullet dodged is the lack of military detail. By focusing on the Meigs lineage as embodying the periodic struggles of both conscience and arms, he avoids _The American Future_ being consigned to the realms of military history. The thematic approach he opts for ultimately serves him better.
_The American Future_ is not without its faults: Schama’s prose is elegant to the point of being occasionally oblique. And while he has a gift of story telling, it hasn’t quite got the same magic of delivery that fellow TV don Niall Ferguson has. But Schama’s conveyance of the themes he approaches is nonetheless enjoyable. By analysing historical events through the writing of many actors – the aforementioned Meigs for example – they are, clichéd though this may sound, brought alive. It marries the petite histoire of personal character with the grand and inexorable march of a nation.
The end result is a success. You are left with an appetite to find out more, the sign of any good book, and ephemeral though it may prove to be, a feeling that all can still be well in the world; all America needs to do is listen to its prophets. And for optimism alone, _The American Future_ finds itself comfortably alongside the words of FDR and Jefferson.