The American Future

Review by Niall Ferguson

I wasn’t on the flatboard before the truck roared off; I lurched, a rider grabbed me, and I sat down. Somebody passed a bottle of rotgut, the bottom of it. I took a big swig in the wild, lyrical air of Nebraska. ‘Whooee, here we go!’ yelled a kid in a baseball cap, and they gunned up the truck to 70 and passed everybody on the road. ‘We been riding this sonofabitch since Des Moines. These guys never stop.’”

Female American immigrants sew an American flag during the first world war

Who else but Jack Kerouac, and what else but his immortal, delirious celebration of American hyper-mobility, On the Road?

For more than half a century, foolish young men have sought to imitate the Beat King’s euphoric prose. All have failed. Only now, in the unlikely form of a 63-year-old British-born historian who grew up in Southend-on-Sea, has Kerouac found a worthy heir.

Simon Schama’s The American Future is a historical On the Road: a rhapsody in Democratic blue, composed on the highways where he spent much of the past year filming the television series of the same name for BBC2. It shares Kerouac’s almost inebriated eloquence, the words tumbling delightfully across the page, the sentences as playfully ornate as the Charlie Parker saxophone solos that Kerouac so adored. As you read, you almost feel like shouting: “Go, man, go!”

Yet this road trip is also an inspiring and illuminating work of history, a reflection on the essence of America with a bedrock of deep knowledge behind the bebop prose.

It is, as immediately becomes apparent, a work of the moment and makes no secret of its author’s political preferences. The moment “when American democracy came back from the dead”, Schama begins, was when Barack Obama won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa last January. To the author, Obama’s comet-like ascent promises nothing less than “a democratic restoration”. Listening to Obama speak, Schama hears Cicero mingled with Martin Luther King, Jr. He is, writes Schama, “the fruit of [King’s] planting; the pay-off of his sacrifice”.

One day in the not too far distant future, when Obama stands revealed as the Chicago-schooled politico that he is – when he has to do more than make grand speeches, but has to make tough choices – these passages may read a little like old teenage love letters. Yet of all the homages to “the One” that I have read, this is the one with the most solid foundation. What Schama sees in Obama is the personification of a liberal America that can trace its roots back as far as the founding fathers, and even the pilgrims before them.

As its paradoxical title promises, The American Future: a History looks both forward and backward. Each of its four parts is a variation on a theme: the ambivalent American attitude to war, the rise of American religious tolerance, the idea of America as a melting pot and the tension between America’s dynamic economy and its delicate ecology. Virtuoso writer that he is, Schama casts clod-hopping chronology to the winds, whisking the reader from – in the case of chapters nine to 12 – 1864 to 2008 to 1900 to 1944. It is rather as if Jack Kerouac had hitched a lift on a malfunctioning time machine. Except that somehow Schama keeps his argument on the road.

The author’s genius lies in the way he uses micro-historical, human-scale narratives to make his big analytical points. To say that Americans are and have always been reluctant warriors is interesting enough, but Schama makes it enthralling by telling the story of General Montgomery C Meigs, the Union commander who was Robert E Lee’s nemesis. It was Meigs, who lost a son in the civil war, who ordered that Lee’s estate at Arlington be converted into the vast military cemetery we know today, Uncle Sam’s Necropolis.

In the same way, Schama is hardly overthrowing conventional wisdom when he argues that the combination of religious fervour and religious tolerance is what makes the United States unique – even if that tolerance has repeatedly been challenged. The magic lies in the story that illustrates the point: the brief but fateful encounter between Moses Seixas, the warden of America’s first synagogue (in Newport, Rhode Island), and George Washington, who assured him that “all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship” – including Jews. Even more compelling is the tale of the Fisk Singers, the African-American vocal ensemble who sang authentic spirituals before Queen Victoria in 1873: the antithesis of the blacked up minstrels of the music halls, and the embodiment of evangelical emancipation.

Yes, there has been a dispute, almost from the inception of the Republic, between “nativists”, who assumed that true Americans must be White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and the universalists, who welcomed all creeds and colours to the melting pot. But how much more interesting that point becomes when Schama zooms in on the tribulations of J Hector St John de Crèvecoeur, whose Letters from an American Farmer (1782) first made the universalist case, or Israel Zangwill, the British Jew whose 1898 play The Melting Pot originated the phrase itself.

“Present-mindedness” is sometimes condemned as a sin by academic historians. But Schama’s brief history of the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee is present-mindedness at its best, as is his account of irrigation’s rise and fall, as exemplified by the water level in Lake Mead, the giant artificial lake just south of Las Vegas.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Koran in his library? Had you heard of the bloody pogroms against Chinese railroad workers in the 1870s? Every one of this book’s 40 chapters will tell you something new about the American past, and each nugget will alter your view of the American future. Only very occasionally does genius falter. The phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum” did not appear on the dollar bill until 1935, long after the time of Washington and Hamilton. They would have known it from the Great Seal of the United States, which was designed in 1782.

As November’s election approaches, amid the greatest financial crisis to hit the United States since the Depression, it seems increasingly probable that Schama will get his political wish. Whether or not an Obama presidency can live up to his ecstatic expectations remains to be seen. But when “The One” finally comes off the road and settles himself, weary but triumphant, into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, I hope he 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.

Niall Ferguson is a Professor at Harvard University and contributing editor of the FT. His new book, ‘The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World’, will be published in November by Penguin

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