Holding up a mirror to US as reality darkens American dream

Fri, Oct 10, 2008, 01:00

BOOK OF THE DAY:The American Future: A History Simon SchamaBodley Head; 375 pp, £20, reviewed by Conor O'Clery.

IN 1976, WHEN the American ambassador to the UK, Elliot Richardson, held a press conference in Co Tyrone after opening the Ulster American Folk Park, which commemorated the famous Mellon family in Pennsylvania, a cheeky young reporter (me) asked him about the fate of the Cherokees who were dislodged to make way for New World settlers like the Mellons.

All history had sad moments, he responded, adding that countries should look forward, not backward. He sidled up to me afterwards and muttered, "Why didn't you ask me about f***ing Geronimo?" But his female assistant also came up later and thanked me for the question, explaining she was part Cherokee herself.

The Cherokees, the Scots-Irish and the Brahmin ambassador - Richardson was from New England - represented three of the diverse peoples that populate the "melting pot" of the United States, all with their different dreams and aspirations and historical amnesia.

Simon Schama, the British historian whom BBC viewers may remember for his fascinating documentary A History of Britain in 2000, records vignettes from the histories of these and other American peoples, who hailed from Africa, Mexico and Germany, in a literary romp through the American story. He positions them for the future by asking just who is an American and what the United States means to them.

For millions it has been a source of unfailing optimism, the last best hope of mankind. Is it now? Reality has darkened the dream. He describes banks failing because of bad loans, big businesses becoming insolvent with toxic debt, Wall Street writing off millions of dollars of stock. That was in 1893 when the rail companies collapsed.

Schama asks if it is different this time, if an exhausted continent is now running on empty. Anyone looking at America this week can imagine that the "shining city on the hill" consists of failed banks and nationalised insurance companies. The most pressing concern facing modern Americans is whether the idea of plenty, of an ever-improving standard of living and expectations of prosperity, has come up against the reality of economic and environmental limits. Schama tells of a crazy guy he once encountered who planted plastic windmills over the asylum garden so that one day the wind would carry it, and him, off to a happier place.

Is the idea of future prosperity for America now just such an illusion?

He identifies other compelling issues facing Americans, such as their projection of power and the intensity of their religious convictions. In creating his tapestry, Schama switches dizzyingly and sometimes disconcertingly from the past to the present, from the story of Montgomery Meigs, the Union Army's quartermaster in the Civil War (whose descendant saw action as a general in Iraq and Bosnia) to an odd encounter with George Bush at No 10 Downing Street, to a conversation with Mexicans living in Texas who see the nord-Americanos there as the illegal immigrants, not the other way round.

He portrays America as a complex society, free and enterprising, welcoming the huddled masses, so long as they came yesterday, and probes its contradictory history - including the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokees to make space for the "perfect society" that J Hector St John de Crèvecoeur peddled to the oppressed Europeans in the 18th century.

Schama doesn't offer prescriptions or answers. He provides, as he calls it, a mirror of time, for Americans to see themselves and to reach back to history to get a sense of their future purpose. The book is the basis for his new BBC series starting tonight. It's tougher to stay attentive as a reader when the diversions go on a bit too long, but most are worth the effort.

Conor O'Clery is former North America editor of The Irish Times