Asked to identify the city that best captures the long arc and ongoing dynamics of American history, most people would select New York or Philadelphia or Boston. Maybe Chicago. These cities were established early and were politically consequential and economically vital; they were sites of American independence and constitutionalism, national influence, great wealth and power, continental visions, and global reach for two hundred years or more. Walter Johnson suggests otherwise. His powerfully argued, insightful, highly personal, and—yes—immensely dispiriting new book, The Broken Heart of America, focuses instead on a city that is customarily overlooked, though very much at our peril: St. Louis.
For Johnson, St. Louis’s history is at the confluence of forces that have given shape to the United States: slavery, white supremacy, radical political struggle, genocidal warfare, empire, and racial capitalism.
Indeed, in Johnson’s telling, St. Louis encompasses America’s predominant historical pulses and rhythms very much because of where it is located: in the Mississippi Valley and at the edge of the trans-Mississippi West, rather than on the East Coast and the Atlantic. His is a story of the country’s history from the inside out; it offers up something of an inversion of the classic argument in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and a radically different interpretive arc. There—and in the West more generally—Turner found the making of individualism and democracy; there Johnson finds the making of empire, racial capitalism, and white supremacy. Both, in their own ways, regard the West as central to the construction of American society and character.
Readers will find The Broken Heart of America challenging and insightful, compelling and unsettling. Johnson provides a deep historical context for the crises we currently face, as well as powerful links between past and present—a Faulknerian demonstration that the past is never dead, or even past. Although other scholars and writers have offered pieces of this story, Johnson’s is richly woven, arrestingly told, and politically fiery.
Yet the problem, it seems to me, is that Johnson’s is also a long story of continuity. The scenery changes and the actors come and go, but the central conceptualizations remain in place. The large themes—empire, white supremacy, racial capitalism—move across time without being sufficiently interrogated or analyzed. And so, for all its power, The Broken Heart of America is in danger of flattening a multidimensional story, of being a history without history.