The American Future: A History


Acclaimed historian and award-winning author Simon Schama offers an essential historical perspective on the crucial 2008 presidential election and its importance for reclaiming America's original ideal.

It's not business as usual. Cultural hostilities more irreconcilable than any since the Civil War have divided America in two. In November 2008, the American people elected a new president, feeling more anxious about the future of the nation...

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Acclaimed historian and award-winning author Simon Schama offers an essential historical perspective on the crucial 2008 presidential election and its importance for reclaiming America's original ideal.

It's not business as usual. Cultural hostilities more irreconcilable than any since the Civil War have divided America in two. In November 2008, the American people elected a new president, feeling more anxious about the future of the nation than at any time since Watergate. Our omnipotent military, the cornucopia of material comforts available, the security of our borders, and the global economy can no longer be taken for granted.

In The American Future, historian Simon Schama takes a long look at the multiple crises besetting the United States and asks how these problems look in the mirror of time. In four crucial debates—on wars, religion, race and immigration, and the relationship between natural resources and prosperity—Schama looks back to see more clearly into the future. Full of lost insights, The American Future showcases Schama's acclaimed gift for storytelling, ensuring these voices will be heard again.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.
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
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
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 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.”
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.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594454977
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/15/2010
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Schama

Simon Schama is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University. His award-winning books, translated into fifteen languages, include Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Landscape and Memory, Rembrandt’s Eyes, A History of Britain, The Power of Art, Rough Crossings, and most recently, The American Future: A History. His art columns for The New Yorker won the National Magazine Award for criticism, and his journalism has appeared regularly in The Guardian and the Financial Times, where he is a contributing editor. He has written and presented forty films for BBC2 on subjects as diverse as Tolstoy, American politics, and John Donne, and won an Emmy for The Power of Art.

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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.

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Table of Contents

Prologue Iowa Waltz 1

I American War

1 Veterans Day: II November 2007 25

2 The fight for the citadel: soldiering and the Founding Fathers 33

3 The Drop Zone Cafe, San Antonio, Texas, 3 March 2008 55

4 The trials of the Roman 59

5 Taking sides 70

6 Father and son 78

7 The quartermaster general, 1861-64 85

8 John Rodgers Meigs, the Shenandoah Valley, summer and fall 1864 100

9 Montgomery Meigs and Louisa Rodgers Meigs, October 1864-December 1865 103

10 Washington, D.C., February 2008 108

11 Hamilton resurrexit 111

12 American war: Rohrbach-lès-Bitche, the Maginot Line near Metz, 10 December 1944 123

II American Fervor

13 Atlantic City, August 1964 130

14 Saved 138

15 Raven, Virginia, 2008 148

16 Providence 152

17 "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free…" 161

18 National Sin 176

19 Jarena Lee 186

20 The sovereignty of the voice 195

21 Easter Sunday, 2008, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta 206

22 Great white hopes? 210

23 Ruleville, Mississippi, 31 August 1962 213

III What is An American?

24 Twilight, Downing Street, June 2008 219

25 Citizen Heartbreak: France, August 1794 223

26 The German threat 238

27 The Chicken Club, south Texas, July 2008 244

28 The immigrant problem in Texas 246

29 The German threat-again 263

30 The importance of Fred Bee 268

31 Grace under pressure 283

32 Jefferson's Koran 295

IV American Plenty

33 Running on empty? 303

34 Strawberry fields, 1775 312

35 White Path, 1801-23 316

36 1893 330

37 The church of irrigation 336

38 Ghost house 344

39 Roll up that lawn 351

40 Windmills 357

Epilogue: The Impotent Angel? 363

Bibliography 371

Acknowledgments 379

Picture Acknowledgments 383

Index 385

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 5 of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    So, I read this History ...

    and I liked it. History is not my usual fare. I didn't mind taking it in public school, but the only History I studied at University was architectural.

    Schama makes it real. He uses the history makers of each period in the evolution (and sometimes de-evolution) of the U. S. to tell not just what happened, but how different sides felt about the course changes our country has taken. He keeps harking back to critical people who represent or align with the major forces behind those changes -- Jefferson and Hamilton firstly; but also the Meigses -- quartermasters, soldiers, and public servants; Lincoln; Robert E. Lee; Samual Clemens; Charles Finney, abolutionist preacher; Jarena Lee, itinerant lay preacher; John Wesley Powell; and the first imperial president, Andrew Jackson (Yes, Nixon gets a mention as well).

    This book pulls no punches: it tells the whole and sometimes very ugly truth. Through it all Schama displays an affinity for and belief in the core ideals of American Democracy. The book culminates with the election of our 44th President, and the promise of an American Future.

    This is not an 'easy read,' but it is worth the effort. I learned a lot. And while I'm not in love tonight, I just might do it again.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 6, 2009

    Schama Characterizes "Surge of Socialism" as "Capitalist Energy"....

    A work claiming to be based on an empirical review of history should be UNBIASED. Schama's work is clearly not so. He ignorantly characterizes the Obama Administration's Surge of Socialism and unprecedented State Managed Corporations as "Capitalist Energy". This work is a boat without a rudder, and one easy to miss.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted March 19, 2010

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    Posted January 3, 2010

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    Posted August 3, 2009

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