Byline: ANDREW NEATHER
The American Future: A History by Simon Schama (Bodley Head, ?20)
ADMIRATION for America and Leftwing views rarely go together in this country. "Why d'you want to go to burgerland?" one fellow Cambridge Left-winger sneered when I left for North Carolina to do a PhD in US history. I spent the eight years I lived in America explaining both its kaleidoscopic variety and sense of possibility to sceptical Brits. Simon Schama would have understood: as a British historian who has lived in the US for almost three decades, he has written of being a Leftie pulled westwards by an "enduring romance with America". That passion fires this quirky book.
Schama is a vocal critic of President Bush: he see this year's election as a turning point.
Indeed he dates the rebirth of American democracy to 7.15pm on 3 January 2008, at the Iowa caucauses, the moment it became clear that Mike Huckabee and Obama had beaten the establishment favourites, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. At a moment of national crisis, he says, people are "looking hard at America the whole bundle of history, economy, geography, power as though their life depends on it, which it does". This book gives an account of the trajectory of US history and of historical alternatives to what the US has now become, ones which people can reclaim in order to help America reinvent itself. It's a fairly commonplace aspiration for Leftleaning US historians, although this book's British audience may find it more surprising.
The book is organised around four strands of American life: war, religion, immigration and environmental plenty. On war as elsewhere, Schama jumps back and forth between history and present-day encounters which can be irritating. Talking to Iraq veterans, it is clearly the kind of American war that Schama doesn't like. The alternative, he believes, is represented by Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General during the US Civil War, whose career he recounts in some detail. At West Point, officers like Meigs were inculcated with a Jeffersonian ethic that was suspicious of standing armies, the antithesis of the impulse among those revolutionary leaders led by Alexander Hamilton, who favoured a muscular projection of US power. …