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The American Future: A History

The American Future: A History

by Simon Schama

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“With eloquence, wit, passion, and irony, The American Future traces the history of an idea: that of our national destiny….A book of beautiful writing, peppered with wisecracks, slashed with rapier thrusts.” —Philadelphia Inquirer


A De Tocqueville for the 21st century, Simon Schama, NBCC Award


“With eloquence, wit, passion, and irony, The American Future traces the history of an idea: that of our national destiny….A book of beautiful writing, peppered with wisecracks, slashed with rapier thrusts.” —Philadelphia Inquirer


A De Tocqueville for the 21st century, Simon Schama, NBCC Award winning author of  Rough Crossings offers an essential, historical, long view analysis of the American character in The American Future. Shama examines four themes—war, race and faith, immigration, and custodianship of the land—through the prism of the historic 2008 presidential election in a magnificent work that the Wall Street Journal calls a “celebration of American resiliency.” Niall Ferguson says, “I hope Obama will have this book on his bedside table.”

Editorial Reviews

The American Future: A History is the companion volume to Simon Schama's four-part BBC series, but readers familiar with the author's work will know better than to expect just a pictorial trot. This London-born, multicultural historian has spent half his life in the United States and qualifies easily as one of its most penetrating observers, even winning accolades as "the De Tocqueville for the 21st century." In this book, the former National Book Critics Circle winner looks at how America views itself in four essential areas: the projection of its power; race and immigration; religion; and the waning mystique of American land and resources. A seminal document.
Barry Gewen
The patriotism on display in The American Future is hardly the narrow and cramped sentiment that in recent years has come to define love of country; it is not belligerent and defensive chauvinism…It's an inclusive affirmation of the ideals of openness, tolerance, diversity, equality and that much-abused concept, freedom…whatever its flaws, in the end The American Future is a success because Mr. Schama knows how to entwine past and present into a meaningful, continuous whole.
—The New York Times
Michael Kazin
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.
—The Washington Post
David Brooks
[Schama's] specialty is finding interesting midlevel characters from the buried mounds of history and telling their stories…These gripping portraits are grouped in broad categories—war, religion, race—but Schama has no argument to promote, just stories to tell and a sensibility to exude.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

Past performance may not guarantee future returns, but it's the best we have to go on, contends this lively meditation on American history. Looking back from the tumultuous 2008 election campaign, historian Schama (NBCC-award winner for Rough Crossings) ponders four themes in American history as they played out in the lives of historical figures: the tension between militarism and liberty in the careers of Civil War general Montgomery Meigs and his family; the progressive influence of evangelical Protestantism on abolitionist and civil rights crusaders; America's conflicted attitudes toward immigrants as seen through the adventures of 18th-century French émigré J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur; and Americans' profligate exploitation of the land and water in an elegy for the Cherokee tribe. Schama's wide-ranging narratives wander between contemporary reportage ("For a minute or two after the photo op, George Bush was left to his own devices and came my way") and fluent, richly literate history. He's alive to irony and hypocrisy in the American story-Mexicans of the 1820s, he notes, shuddered at the uncouth Yankee immigrants flooding into Texas-but Schama is optimistic that the nation's perennial openness and complexity can see it through the storm clouds ahead. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In this companion to a BBC documentary about the 2008 presidential campaign, British transplant Schama (University Professor of Art History & History, Columbia Univ.; Rough Crossings)-a foremost revivalist of the grand narrative historiographic tradition-trains his interpretive virtuosity on the United States. Schama, who views Obama's triumphant ascendancy as the realization of the grandest American values, ties campaign themes to the larger historical traditions, tensions, and contests that gave rise to them. He cuts back and forth between vignettes of his visits to Nevada, Texas, and Georgia, among other locales, and startlingly original takes on America's practices of democratic warring, deep but diverse religiosity, ethnic and racial identity, and grabs for land, water, and energy. Some readers will be put off by the author's affectionate but condescending assumption of dialect-inflected depictions of Iowan voters, Mexican American veterans, and Mississippian Civil Rights heroines, but these passages are comparatively brief. In the end, while Schama makes a real contribution to an understanding of how America is special (and imperiled), this work is not based on archival research and does not reveal new stories that illuminate a complex past. Appropriate for all readers but perhaps best for the general public. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/09.]
—Scott H. Silverman

Kirkus Reviews
The noted British historian examines current American attitudes through the lens of U.S. history. Schama (History and Art History/Columbia Univ.; The Power of Art, 2006, etc.) has studied Dutch, French and English cultures, among others, during the course of his career. In his latest, he looks at the United States, where he has spent a large portion of his life. The book serves as a companion piece to his 2008 BBC documentary series of the same title; in both, Schama connects contemporary feelings about war, democracy, immigration and prosperity with people and events from American history. In one effective section, he profiles several generations of the Meigs family, whose members served their country in nearly every major war. His take on the complicated subject of American religious fervor is particularly nuanced and refreshing. Schama can be guilty of overblown phrasing, as when he writes, "The Angel of History...watches powerlessly as the wreckage rises into the sky." He also tends occasionally toward sweeping pronouncements, as when he claims, "I can tell you exactly, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead"-Jan. 3, 2008, when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. More often, though, he attenuates his prose, using well-chosen historical examples to make subtle and insightful points, such as linking post-9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry to past nativist movements. The book contains some wonderful moments: President George W. Bush confiding that anti-immigration congressman Tom Tancredo is "an idiot"; Schama embracing his dry cleaner, whose son had been killed in Afghanistan. The author's fascination with and affection for the United States shines through,and he provides many engaging insights into the nation's past and future. Ambitious historical examination of what it means to be an American. Author events in New York City and Washington, D.C.
New York Times
“It is a tribute to Mr. Schama’s talent that he is able to make this work sound exciting, even inspiring. . . . The American Future is a success because Mr. Schama knows how to entwine past and present into a meaningful, continuous whole.”
Boston Globe
“Schama is a masterful stylist and storyteller.”
The Economist
“It has its own particular charm . . . a fabulous jumble-sale, full of old treasures and recent acquisitions. Anyone interested in America will find in it something to their fancy.”
Washington Post
“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] a writer of gorgeous prose.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“With eloquence, wit, passion and irony, The American Future traces the history of an idea: that of our national destiny. . . . Schama’s is a book of beautiful writing, peppered with wisecracks, slashed with rapier thrusts.”
The Times (London)
“Schama is a genius of storytelling. . . . A historian who radiates such anticipated pleasure is a rare thing. We are lucky to have him.”
Miami Herald
“His historical narrative is excellent. . . . [Schama] writes beautifully about Americans of the past.”
Niall Ferguson
“I hope Obama will have this book on his bedside table. A more inspiring evocation of the spirit of liberal America—past, present and future—does not exist.”

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Read an Excerpt

The American Future

A History
By Simon Schama


Copyright © 2009 Simon Schama
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-053923-8

Chapter One

American War

Veterans Day: 11 November 2007

"America has never been a warrior culture."

Just because it was Dick Cheney saying this didn't automatically make it untrue, even on Veterans Day in Arlington National Cemetery, a year before the election. Patriotic chest-thumping from an impenitent vice president was not what anyone, least of all the veterans themselves, wanted to hear. Bodies of young American men and women were showing up regularly at Section 60, at the foot of the grassy hill. Mustard-colored backhoes stood parked in a row, steel claws raised, ready to dig. Every so often, on the hour, a soft clop of horses' hooves could be heard coming over the dips and rises of the cemetery park before a reversed gun carriage rolled into view. Most weekdays, every hour or so, those small, sad parades do the funerary honors as tourist buses are diverted to alternative routes, heading for the Unknown Soldier or JFK. But if you walk the green vales of Arlington, you can catch young soldiers of the 3rd Infantry getting ready for their next duty, operating the forklifts that hoist coffins onto the carriages. Others grab a quiet smoke beneath the plane trees before dressing the horses and getting on their ceremonials. Out in Samarra and Helmand andMosul and Kandahar a great many more mutilated and eviscerated bodies, not American, are being tended to as best as possible without benefit of flag or drums. Only the keening sounds the same.

But at Arlington, on Veterans Day 2007, in Memorial Amphitheater there was no howling, except from small children squirming against the captivity of their mothers' laps. Cheney would utter the consolatory pieties with studied quietness, his voice falling at the end of the sentence, as if the avoidance of vocal histrionics were itself a symptom of truth-telling. Perhaps he has Theodore Roosevelt's injunction to "speak softly and carry a big stick" framed over the vice presidential desk. When, every so often, an infant would let rip with an aaaighw, the note bouncing off the columns, Cheney would look up from the teleprompter, sight line briefly changed and then move impassively to the next homily, like a tank rolling over a cat.

It was warm on 11 November, and the temper in the amphitheater was jocund. Sunlight falling on cherry-red caps and coats turned veteran marines into a gathering of jolly elves. The oompah from the big orchestra was classical lite, and the procession of colors into the amphitheater could have been any high-school parade but for the many years of the standard-bearers. Studded biker jackets decorated with Vietnam insignia-"Hells' Harriers," "Dragon Breath"-draped the gutswagged bodies of old grunts, but behind the bandannas of yore they had lost their heavy-metal menace, their righteously roaring grievance. Now they were just living exhibits in the museum of stoned-age warfare, the walking wounded of the Sha-Na Na-tion. More speeches droned; more Andrew Lloyd Webber chirped; and the volunteer "service" being eulogized was rapidly turning into social granola: "veterans helping out in communities" more akin to the coast guard or the scouts; nothing to do with bombs and bullets. If Iraq and Afghanistan had turned out not to be a picnic, Veterans Day at Arlington certainly felt like one.

But America has two specified days of military remembrance; one when the leaves are fallen, the other when they spread into full spring splendor. Created after the Civil War, Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day from the spontaneous habit of military widows decorating graves with wreaths of white flowers. In 1868 the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John Logan, decided to institutionalize a day of remembrance-for both the Union and Confederate dead-and specified the third Monday in May. For most of the country, Memorial Day is about the inauguration of warmth. Garage sales lay out their wares in driveways. America's men go through their tribal ritual firing up the grill for the first cookout. Meat meets heat, beer cans pop and hiss, and somewhere, everywhere, a microtractor is harvesting a suburban lawn. But even if the lines of spectators at the parades are thin, some remembering does get done in small-town America. In Sleepy Hollow, New York, where a statue commemorates the "honest militiamen" who caught the British spy Major André in 1780, a dozen or so veterans, some of them octogenarian survivors of Pearl Harbor and Normandy, followed behind a high-school marching band of big girls dressed in glossy black boots, pleated black miniskirts, and scarlet jackets, strangely reminiscent of the British redcoats the "honest militiamen" had thwarted. The band murdered "Sloop John B" (a baffling selection) and "God Bless America," and an endless procession of fire trucks from neighboring towns followed, each bearing heraldic insignia ("Conquest Hook and Ladder 46"), before the parade ended up at a flower-decorated "Patriots' Park" (named for the Revolutionary War). There, amid the dogs and babies and aunties and wives, the dignitaries did something surprising: they connected with history. The commander of the local American Legion, a World War II survivor, read the entirety of General Logan's Order Number 11 from 1868, as though it had just been issued, stumbling a little over its great flights of Lincolnian rhetoric, asking for the perpetuation of tender sentiment for those "whose breasts were made barricades between our enemies [that is, other Americans] and our country." The Lincolnian tone was sustained when the mayor of Tarrytown read an abbreviated version of the Gettysburg Address, although why he thought fit to shorten a speech that is only 400 words in the first place was mysterious. The dead of that immense slaughter and the president in his high hat were summoned from November 1863 to cookout day 2008, to mix and mingle with the old Vietnam grunts in Ranger hats. But was this just an empty flourish? Was it safer, easier, to invoke Gettysburg and Antietam than dwell on the fifty-two American servicemen and women killed just the previous month in Iraq and Afghanistan?


Excerpted from The American Future by Simon Schama Copyright © 2009 by Simon Schama . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

David Brooks
“His specialty is finding interesting midlevel characters from the buried mounds of history and telling their stories. In the first great chunk of the book, he tells the stories of the Meigses...gripping portraits...Simon Schama the outstanding historian still survives.”
Niall Ferguson
“I hope Obama will have this book on his bedside table. A more inspiring evocation of the spirit of liberal America—past, present and future—does not exist.”

Meet the Author

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. His award-winning books include Scribble, Scribble, Scribble; The American Future: A History; National Book Critics Circle Award winner Rough Crossings; The Power of Art; The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age; Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations); Landscape and Memory; Rembrandt's Eyes; and the History of Britain trilogy. He has written and presented forty television documentary films for the BBC, PBS, and The History Channel, including the Emmy-winning Power of Art, on subjects that range from John Donne to Tolstoy.

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