By Michael Kazin
Sunday, June 14, 2009
THE AMERICAN FUTURE
By Simon Schama
Ecco. 400 pp. $29.99
Who does Simon Schama think he is? The Columbia University historian seems to have few intellectual limits and to require little sleep. He has written path-breaking books about Dutch history and culture; the Rothschilds and the creation of Israel; sprawling narratives about the Revolution in France and slavery during the Revolution in America; a thick study of Rembrandt; a postmodern historical novel; dozens of provocative essays about art; and multi-part television documentaries about the history of Britain and the work of great artists, both of which attracted millions of viewers and, inevitably, hundreds of scholarly critics.
Now Schama has chosen to examine the meaning of America's entire past and to suggest why it has culminated, quite happily in his view, with the election of Barack Obama. On campuses all over the nation, I suspect there are historians guiltily hoping that, this time, Schama's reach has finally exceeded his grasp.
They will be disappointed -- but only in part. As a literary endeavor, "The American Future" does live up to the author's lofty standards. Schama is, among other things, a nimble biographer. And in this book he tells four big, interlocking stories -- about war, religion, immigration and economic growth -- largely through the dramatic lives of individuals whose names will be familiar mainly to specialists.
In Montgomery Meigs, he finds an exemplar of the soldier as engineer of grand purposes. While a young army officer in the 1850s, Meigs designed the aqueduct that supplied Washington, D.C., with free, clean water. Then, as quartermaster general during the Civil War, he helped ensure the Union victory by keeping the blue-clad troops supplied with mules, food, soap and dry underwear -- humble, necessary goods their Confederate enemies often lacked. He also made the decision to establish a military cemetery on the grounds of Robert E. Lee's estate in Arlington, so the soil of the treasonous general would be, as Schama writes, "purified with the bones of the blessed dead," among whom was Meigs's oldest son.
To illustrate how American religion has often been a liberating faith, Schama introduces a former slave-turned-evangelist named Jarena Lee whose sermons converted thousands of people to Methodism during the early years of the 19th century. "On and on went the inexhaustible road warrior," Schama writes, "exhorting in field and forest, in camp revivals and Love Feasts, comforting the dying" in the New York City cholera epidemic of 1831, "an authentic American phenomenon, preaching to overflowing congregations, the first, in her way, of the great black orators."
Throughout the book, Schama deftly counterposes such uplifting tales with deplorable ones. Meigs, the abolitionist in uniform, is balanced by Andrew Jackson, the military hero who, as president, ordered the U.S. Army to drive the Cherokees off their lands in Georgia. Schama sets Jarena Lee -- along with Fannie Lou Hamer, the legendary civil rights organizer and lay preacher of the 1960s -- against retired Gen. William Boykin, a devout Christian who served under Donald Rumsfeld during the first year of the Iraq war. Boykin once called Islam a religion of idolatry and told an audience he "wanted to arrive" in heaven " 'with blood on my knees and elbows . . . standing with a ragged breastplate of righteousness.' " What made America great, Schama suggests, has also been the source of its greatest flaws.
Yet such vignettes -- and there are many more here -- do little to advance a fresh understanding of the American past. To describe the power of religious zeal and of zealous men in arms could be the starting point for an argument about the roots and consequences of ideological warfare. But Schama mostly allows his seductive portraits to speak for him. "The American Future" was written to accompany a TV series of the same name, which aired in the United States on inauguration day. Artful evocation may be all one can expect from such an enterprise. Still, one would like to come away from reading a book by such a thoughtful historian with a few insights to accompany his characters.
No such reticence is evident in Schama's comments about our new president. "The Statue of Liberty was no longer a bad joke," he writes about the mood on election night, 2008. Beyond the nominee's race, "American democracy came back from the dead" thanks to Obama's grassroots campaign, and now has a chance to realize the unity of "independence" and "interdependence" that has led the nation out of its most serious crises.
"The American Future" demonstrates, once again, that Schama is a quick study, a writer of gorgeous prose, and he has a deep and clear-eyed love for his adopted land. It will take a while to see whether the distinguished historian is also a reliable prophet.
Michael Kazin's latest book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches history at Georgetown University.