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The Grand American Narrative

As the united States prepares to inaugurate a new president, popular historian simon schama examines the country’s past to find hope in the present

By GIL TROY, Freelance, Canwest Newspapers, January 17, 2009

A conductor leads a military band rehearsing outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington last Sunday. Barack Obama is to be sworn in as president Tuesday.

Many Americans – and friends of the United States worldwide – are greeting the new age of Barack Obama with particular glee. The giddiness is partly due to

Obama’s youth, eloquence and rock-star charisma, and partly because Obama’s inauguration Tuesday will

also mark George W. Bush’s retirement. In this early

example of what will probably become a library-full of Obama redemptive tales, historian Simon Schama identifies the Iowa Caucus that Obama won in January 2008 as the moment “when American democracy came back from the dead.”

Schama is one of today’s most readable and well-rounded historians. In an age of hyper-specialization, Schama has written lyrically and insightfully about the French Revolution and the African-

American slave crossing, about subjects as sweeping as the history of Britain and as specific as the works of Rembrandt. His histories are usually Rembrandt-like, vivid, realistic portraits displaying remarkable dimensionality and depth.

In this offbeat, journalistic yet nevertheless appealing book, Schama has produced an impressionistic work more akin to a Picasso during the artist’s rollicking, energetic, colourful Cubist period. This work finds inspiration for the future by sampling more than 300 years of U.S. history in a non-linear, creative way.

Reflecting the kind of efficiency that helps make Schama so productive, the book is a prose version of a similarly named BBC production. Back in his native England, Schama has become famous for narrating sprawling popular television documentaries. This project seems intended to reassure his fellow Brits that by looking at the United States’s proud history, they can rest easy about its future. The double-dipping may be responsible for the book’s herky-jerky and

occasionally obscure nature, as Schama seeks out particular sites and individuals who can illustrate his point, rather than developing his story chronologically.

Schama believes that the United States remains the beacon to the world, a magnet attracting more than a million immigrants

annually, a wellspring of liberal rights and noble ideals. The country works both because of its founding principles and because of its advantageous practical conditions.

Tackling the explosive issue of church and state, Schama praises the founders’ “daring bet” that “freedom and faith” could be

“mutually nourishing.” This delicious mix, Schama writes, “has made Americans uniquely qualified to fight the only battle that matters … the war of toleration against conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty.” This tension, he believes, “turns out to be the big American story.”

Americans have struck the right ideological balance because they are blessed by what Schama calls “the wide blue yonder.”

Having so much space has always allowed Americans to move on, start over, find a new spot. He exults: “Say howdy, give it a good poke and up will pop your very own piece of plenty: a crop of corn, a magic glint in the stream, a gush of black gold.” Even today, in a more developed, bureaucratic and sclerotic country, America’s great expanse remains redemptive. Schama celebrates the United States’s stunning diversity and complexity as a source of healing, the spur to “rejuvenating alternatives,” neither impeding order nor reform. The many alternatives mean that Americans never hit a dead end: “Americans roused can turn on a dime, abandon habits of a lifetime … convert indignation into action and before you know it there’s a whole new United States in the neighbourhood.”

Predictably, Schama venerates the country’s great constructive subversives, ranging from founders like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to civil-rights revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. Less familiar to readers will be Schama’s fascination with the Meigs family, an American dynasty whose story traces back to 1636 and tracks “the history of America.” The most prominent member of this clan was Montgomery C. Meigs, the quartermaster general of the Grand Army of the Republic

during the Civil War. Meigs and his family embody all the great virtues Schama recognizes in his adopted country – pragmatism and altruism, creativity and adaptability, passion and candour.

Ultimately, this book is history for hortatory purposes, applying the grand American narrative of the past to find hope in the present.

If Obama’s presidency gets bogged down in controversies, if he becomes a leader whose governing abilities cannot match his lovely ideals or the high hopes he generated, Schama’s book will end up on the ash heap of history, a reflection of Obama’s great potential and a sobering reminder, once again, of problems unsolved, dreams

unfulfilled, messianic expectations dashed and believers in democracy disappointed.

On the other hand, if Obama transforms the U.S. mood, and the country’s condition and reputation, Schama’s book will be hailed as prophetic, as both anticipating and helping to realize this great, healing Obama moment so many crave.

Gil Troy is a professor of U.S. history at McGill University.

The American Future: A History

By Simon Schama

Viking, 392 pages, $34

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