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Check Out My Cicero

By (October 1, 2009) No Comment

The American Future

By Simon Schama
Ecco Books, 2009

“There is always a look of consciousness or bustle when people come in a way which they know to be beneath them,” Emma Woodville opines in Emma. “You think you carry it off very well, I dare say, but with you it is always a sort of bravado, an air of affected unconcern…”

And the seeming contrast between bravado and unconcern is actually resolved by the fact that they’re two sides of the single coin ‘beneath.’ When people step out of their natural métier, Emma is advising (with large Austenian dollops of hypocrisy, of course), they’re immediately forced into an endless game of trying, as opposed to simply being. Suddenly, merely standing in a room talking is something they might do wrong, because they’re pretending they’re not slumming. Think of Virgil in court, or Johnson behind the counter in the bookstore, or Gore Vidal writing fiction; condescension, even with the best of intentions, courts disaster.


We all know the realm where Simon Schama rules: it’s history, and a particularly bravura kind of history – depth of research and insight presented chiaroscuro. This is the author who gave us the massively learned interconnections of Landscape and Memory, the puckish narrative sweep of An Embarrassment of Riches, and double-barreled shot of narrative exuberance and sheer brilliance that is Dead Certainties. In all these books, Schama quietly discards the Thucydidean model of history in favor of a more Herodotean flash-and-patter, confident that he can impart elements of fiction’s more personal nuance into history’s stately pace, and where this is most blatant – in Dead Certainties – is also where it looks least promising. Is there really a connection between the book’s two subjects, the death of General Wolfe and the murder of Doctor Parkman, even as themes? It seems impossible that such a connection could extend beyond the merely circumstantial fact that a popular account of Wolfe’s death was written by Parkman’s nephew, and yet Schama’s book about the two cases not only draws them together but makes them look natural that way.

We’ve come to expect this kind of magic from Schama, and we trust that he can do it. So when, in his latest book, American Future, he fails, we’re not only disappointed but embarrassed. Not horrified; the failure isn’t that severe – the lovely assistant wasn’t really sawed in half. But nevertheless, Schama has reached into his top hat, fished around, and produced some lint and perhaps a few stray coins. No big white bunny this time.

Schama’s organizational scheme in The American Future is no less varied and thought-provoking than in his previous works: he looks at major themes in American history – war, immigration, especially race – in his signature kaleidoscopic way, often hauling second or third-tier figures such as Civil War-era Union quartermaster Montgomery Meigs, who turned Robert E. Lee’s Arlington home into a Federal cemetery, but this time around the effect is less like Dead Certainties and more like Forever Amber:

Quite suddenly the identity of his friends and his enemies became distinct in Montgomery Meigs’ mind. They were the same as the friends and enemies of the United States of America. His wretched adversary, Floyd, he remembered, had heard the cheers of the Virginia hotheads, when as governor he had promised to embargo goods from any free state not returning fugitive slaves to their masters! Such bravery indeed! Such exercise of the public trust! Meigs had heard rumours of so many of his old West Point comrades, men who as cadets and then officers had solemnly vowed to hold as sacred the college code of Duty, Honor, Country, violating it by planning to betray the Union. What was it these men, these traitors, including his own brother Henry, imagined they were defending? Was it the constitutional right of states to go their own way? Meigs thought that the most despicable and transparent sophistry. It was what the states were seceding for that was the true issue: the American future; whether that future would live up to Jefferson’s noble promises of liberty and equality, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, or forever tarnish them with the odious hypocrisy of economic convenience.

On one page we get a spirited – if slightly slapdash – evocation of Theodore Roosevelt’s estimation of previous presidents:

Jefferson he despised as a remote intellectual and a weakling in matters of war and peace, one of the very worst of presidents. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, he revered for his frank passion for power, his vision of strong central government and his unapologetic determination to make the United States a player on the world scene, admired and feared for its military prowess.

But it’s followed on another page by chummy summaries like “… but nothing stopped Teddy” (one thing that virtually always stopped him was people having the “confounded impertinence” to call him by that name) and importantly inaccurate characterizations like “[Roosevelt] affected to brush all this off. The last thing he wanted to be thought of was bookish.”

There’s a possibility that Schama – and certainly his more avid defenders – might re-read such stuff and cling all the more tightly to their Herodotean pretensions, to the drama of making us feel history in addition to simply reading it. The trick of slipping in and out of the thoughts of one’s historical characters is very nearly the historian’s oldest gimmick (perhaps only preceded by “I actually saw it”); all those marvelous speeches in Livy are an exercise in it, and it fills the works of writers like Gibbon and Carlyle. But it tends to get modern writers in trouble (it bought Edmund Morris no end of trouble when he tried it in his Reagan biography Dutch – he practically had Columbia professors TP-ing his house), mainly because it strikes readers as lazy. When Schama brings “Unitarian minister turned Army colonel” Thomas Wentworth Higginson onto his stage, he gives us this:

He and his brother-abolitionists in the north had long spoken of a ‘gospel army’ but they had meant it metaphorically, Fighting the Good Fight, Christian Soldiers and so forth. After a while Higginson had found, somewhat to his surprise, the figure of speech disingenuous, shaming, a sign that fighting against slavery would be done merely with words and prayers. Higginson, Massachusetts Brahmin, Harvard man, a fixture of the literary world, had become exasperated with the rhetoric. He hungered to smite the despotic enemy hip and thigh, to lay about them with a mighty whack.

But since Higginson left behind a veritable mountain of personal letters and documents, surely it’s his place to say what he hungers for (whether it be spiritual success, vaguely silly clichés, or both), not Schama’s? And what about Lieutenant-Colonel Montgomery Meigs, descendant of the “such bravery indeed!” Meigs we’ve already met? When he’s slogging through Rohrbach-les-Bitche, on the Maginot Line near Metz in 1944, we’re again taken right inside his head:

Sonofabitch, if it was this cold then you’d think the mud would have frozen. But it got loose enough to clog up the caterpillar treads; slowed the whole damned thing down; made the battalion sitting ducks for whatever anti-tank guns, 88s coming in every which way. No wonder the 4th had had it after months of mud, taking it on the nose. Now it was the turn of the 12th, his outfit, most of them still green, snotnoses, never under fire before; him too if he thought about it, nothing Fort Benning prepared you for. You got used to it pretty damn quick though.

And then we’re told he was killed the next day, posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star but a month too early to hear of his son’s birth. A sad, touching story, but the historically-conscious reader comes away from it wondering where exactly the “sonofabitch” comes from. And wondering that kills the story. It’s important to note that for all his sins against modern historical methodology, Herodotus never kills a story.

And when Herodotus steps out of his narrative to comment on something, he steps all the way out, and he comments in a loud, clear voice. That’s a big part of why those of us who love him feel the way we do about his Histories, even though so much of it is spin-doctored folklore. Stepping out of your narrative in that way and then stepping back in takes not only careful footwork but a complete control of that narrative, and time and again in The American Future that control slips away from Schama:

When a particularly horrifying case of the water cure involving a priest, Father Augustine, came to light and the league [the Anti-Imperialist League, of which Mark Twain was the vice president] asked its vice president to write something appropriately damning, he retreated. He was sixty-seven; he was tired; there was only so much he could do. Understandable. Sad.

  Is it the League that considers Twain’s demurral understandable and sad? Is it Twain? Is it Schama, or perhaps, in a feat of research alignment, all three? The reader isn’t given any more clues than just those two words, “Understandable. Sad.” If you want anything more concrete than that, you’ll have to dig up the records (good luck with that too – the book’s bibliography is a bit sketchy) and find out for yourself.

In short, you’ll have to do Schama’s job, and that raises an awkward question: if he’s not doing a historian’s job in this odd, impressionistic book, what kind of job is he doing instead? It’s disturbing to ask this kind of question about a writer who’s bestowed such marvelous gems on his reading public in the past, and maybe it’s natural to turn to those earlier works for some clarification. In – and about – Dead Certainties, Schama writes:

Though these stories may at times appear to observe the discursive conventions of history, they are in fact historical novellas, since some passages (the soldiers with Wolfe’s army, for example) are pure inventions, based, however, on what documents suggest. This is not to say, I should emphasise, that I scorn the boundary between fact and fiction. It is merely to imply that even in the most austere scholarly report from the archives, the inventive faculty – selecting, pruning, editing, commenting, interpreting, delivering judgements – is in full play. This is not a naively relativist position that insists that the lived past is nothing more than an artificially designed text. .. But it does accept the rather banal axiom that claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudice of its narrator.

Somehow, the sheer enjoyment of the book served to blot out the full alarm of a passage like that. Fatally circumscribed? Always?

Schama has never called himself a novelist, nor has he tread even so far into the no-man’s–land between reportage and gossip as writers like Evan S. Connell; instead, he’s always been one of our most vividly impressionistic historians, including in the every book fracture-lines leading to the boundaries of other disciplines. Such an approach is front and center in a miniaturist diptych like Dead Certainties, but it’s present in all his works, even a massively learned French Revolution history like Citizens. But in The American Future, the weaknesses in the scheme are all hugely magnified, and again, the reader is entitled to ask why.

The answer isn’t encouraging. Turns out it’s President Obama’s fault.

Schama followed the Obama campaign in a more or less official capacity for the BBC, touring the stops, covering the speeches, meeting the candidate – and perhaps inevitably getting caught up in the whirlwind. Most of us felt the same thing watching Obama’s navigation through the election process; even the man’s enemies recognized that they were watching history being made. But whereas when the ordinary civilian sees history being made they might at most pause in their gym workout, when professional historians see history being made, they react as if they’ve mainlined a brick of Mongolian blue cocaine (this is literally true: when CNN televised the Berlin Wall coming down, a historian friend of mine at Princeton watched, called me to tell me nothing more important had ever happened in the history of the world, and then had a heart attack – I was razzing him about being hysterical while he was gasping “help … me …” into his shag carpet). Schama knows his American history backwards and forwards, and when he sees the Obama campaign exceeding all expectations, he pretty much goes to Disneyland right in front of us. Higginson, Miegs, and everybody else get shoved downstage so Schama can shift gears and talk about the campaign and the candidate:

Listen to me, says Obama, listen to me and you will catch the American future. But I pay attention and hear the American past, not a dragweight on ‘change’; just the solid ground beneath the high-sailing dirigible of his rhetoric. The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light heated with anticipation. The American past is baggy with sobering truth. In between is the quicksilver Now, beads of glittering elation that slip and scatter, resisting prosaic definition. Obama wants to personify all these tenses. So he takes his listeners to the promised land via Selma, Alabama, and the sixties, Gettsyburg and the 1860s. His effort to rekindle a sense of national community suggests another Great Awakening, but he knows all about the first spiritual revival in the eighteenth century and the second in the nineteenth; upheavals of the soul that changed the country. This attachment to the past is not just cultural exhibitionism, a guaranteed vote-loser in America. Rather, it’s the grace note in Lincoln’s ‘mystic chord of memory’; the sonority without which appeals to invoke American spirit in tough times as just so many sound bites.

I was watching the news pretty steadily through those anxious, hopeful months, but I must have missed the Great Awakening. And that mention of Selma would be troubling enough just once, but it gets hammered even more explicitly:

Listen to me, says Obama, check out my Cicero, my measured cadence, now legato, now staccato, the latter delivered with narrowing eyes, lips slightly pursed between the calculated pauses; the head still and slightly cocked to one side, as if awaiting the promptings of ancestry. Now who do you hear? You hear my warrant, an even bigger, deeper, preach: Martin Luther King. I am the fruit of his planting; the pay-off of his sacrifice.

It’s surely not any disrespect to Schama’s considerable historical gifts to say there’s a chance that, no matter how tempting the confluence is, there’s really very little connection between Martin Luther King and President Barack Obama – and that drawing such a connection, repeatedly, starts to look insultingly close to suggesting that one eloquent black man must be the ‘fruit’ of another eloquent black man because all the other black men are guttural morons. John Edwards gives a mighty fine stump speech, but I never heard him compared to William Jennings Bryan, especially by a professional historian. Candidate Obama invoked King on many occasions, but after all, he was trying to win an election – and he’s no historian. Politicians, even virtuous ones, traffic in reducing the past to pat, comfortable schematics. Historians, even unconventional ones, are supposed to do the exact opposite.

The bigger, deeper preach here might well be the sentiment Obama’s too canny a politician ever to outright say: that the American future, if we’re lucky, doesn’t have much to do with race at all. That would be strange new territory indeed, and I hope a less starstruck Simon Schama is there to help us chart it.

Amanda Bragg is a florist living in Baton Rouge. She writes occasionally for Open Letters and is a registered Democrat.

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