Nixon Blog dismisses Simon Schama's new book

[Joshua Treviño is the president of Trevino Strategies and Media, Inc., in Sacramento, California. He served as a U.S. Army officer, worked in the Administration of George W. Bush from 2001 through 2004, and at the Pacific Research Institute from 2005 through 2008.]

Simon Schama is a great scholar, a great writer, and a great historian. Among his many works, The Embarrassment of Riches is the finest history of the Dutch Golden Age in English; and Citizens is among the best surveys of the French Revolution in any language. He is that most rare and privileged creature, the celebrity-scholar, who has proven his mastery in multiple subjects — he teaches in two departments at Columbia University, and boasts an academic pedigree from both Cambridge and Oxford — and is therefore allowed free rein in any. For the most part, he sticks with what he knows: a History of Britain, the Power of Art. This is for the best, because when he does not, it shows. Nowhere does it show more clearly than in his latest book, The American Future, already available in the United Kingdom, and slated for a May 2009 release in the United States.

The American Future is a sort of ersatz companion book to a four-part documentary series by the same name that Schama is starring in for the BBC. As of this writing, it has only recently aired (and it will assuredly make its way to PBS in due time). The description offered by the BBC would be nice if applicable to the book: “Simon Schama travels through America to dig deep into the conflicts of its history as a way to understand the country’s contemporary political situation.” Perhaps the television series both digs deep and arrives at some understanding. In print, The American Future does neither. It is, in fact, the worst Schama book this reviewer has ever read.

This does not necessarily mean it is not worth reading. Simon Schama’s worst is better than most people’s best. Yet because he is such a sterling historian elsewhere, it is all the more disappointing to see him phone it in here. The structure of the book purports to examine the American past as a means of discerning its future, and he does this in ways that vary wildly from interesting to absurd.

Much of the book is taken up with a narrative history of the august and rightly respected Meigs family, who managed to participate in the whole sweep of American history, mostly with rifle in hand, from the colonial era to the present. (The most recent Meigs of note commanded NATO forces in Bosnia in 1998-1999.) Yet Schama’s implicit argument, that the Meigs family history is a reasonable metaphor for the American experience, falls flat. He attempts to transform Montgomery C. Meigs, the Union quartermaster-general in the Civil War, into an emblematic American figure of that era. It works in the most awkward way, inasmuch as it works best if you don’t know much about that war. If you do, you know that though that Meigs was a deeply interesting man, he was eclipsed by far more interesting men in a period suffused with them. Shelby Foote on several occasions stated that the two towering figures of that war were Nathan Bedford Forrest and William Tecumseh Sherman; and he makes a better case in a few sentences than Schama manages in an entire book.

Even as he strains — or doesn’t — to make a case for his chosen narrative set-pieces wrested from American history, the reader of The American Future is left with the troubling sense that Schama has perhaps not done his due diligence in sourcing and research. There are the odd, Edmund Morris-style digressions into first-person recollection that cannot possibly be anything but fiction: “Sonofabitch,” Schama has yet another Meigs think just before dying at the Battle of the Bulge, “if it was this cold then you think the mud would’ve frozen … Clean it out, get into Deutschland, finish them off, good guys win, bad guys, very bad guys, lose.” Did any soldier actually think this? It is perilously close to tinny Hollywood rhetoric — what a British expat professor thinks an American infantryman speaks like — and if Schama made it up, shame on him. And if he has documentary evidence that the fallen Meigs of World War Two expressed these thoughts, shame on him for presenting it as his own weird reconstruction.

The reader’s confidence in these episodes, strewn throughout the book, is further marred by the occasional factual error. “[T]he second president of the Texan Republic was a Tejano,” Schama writes, though depending on how you count it, Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar were not Tejanos of any sort. There never was a Tejano president of the Republic of Texas: Schama is probably referring to Lorenzo de Zavala, who was interim vice-president of the Republic during the Texas War of Independence. Or rather, one of Schama’s graduate students is probably referring to de Zavala. This is emblematic of the minimal attention the author appears to have given this work, which stands in such regrettable contrast to his earlier, justly famed efforts.

It should be acknowledged that there are some interesting ideas in The American Future. Schama highlights the contrast between the present-day American disavowal of nation building, and the explicitly nation-building purpose of the pre-Civil War American military. He does it in a ham-handed way, and obscures his point with a fondness for illustrative anecdote that illustrates very little, but it is there. Similarly, his treatment of the Cherokee removal of the 1830s (via another Meigs, of course) is moving and vivid. In these brief passages, The American Future shows us what it could have been: a moral argument about American history, or an exploration of contradictions in that history. Schama neglects both routes in favor of anecdote upon anecdote.

We are presumably to plow through these anecdotes as a means of arriving at what the BBC promises, “a way to understand the country’s contemporary political situation.” Nothing like this emerges. We go from a touching account of a colonial Meigs romance, to a dusty Texas chow hall, to Thomas Jefferson’s Koran, to a somewhat dubious recounting of the time the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan educated a young Simon Schama into the pageantry of American democracy. None of it is linear, and little of it is thematically coherent. Out of this great, wonderful mess of history, Schama tries to say, the American character emerges, and its contradictions are with us still. Well, yes: but Walt Whitman said it better, and briefer, and much earlier.

Lurking throughout The American Future is the specter of Barack Obama, not yet President-elect when the book was written. It is no surprise that Schama sees Obama as the culminating figure of all that history: the embodiment of what is good, true, and worthwhile about our country. No doubt he is, from the perspective of an expatriate Briton, celebrity academic, and longtime Manhattan resident. So be it: but the acknowledgement makes The American Future less an explanation of America, and more an explanation of what Simon Schama wishes America was.

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