three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Simon Schama
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A History

A-The American FutureProlific historian, television personality, and Columbia University professor Simon Schama has taken on many subjects, among them Dutch culture (The Embarrassment of Riches), nature (Landscape and Memory), A History of Britain, The Power of Art, and the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Rough Crossings ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006).

The Topic: The American Future began as a four-part BBC documentary aired to coincide in the United States with Barack Obama's January 2009 inauguration. At this turning point, according to Schama, "American democracy, trapped in a deep freeze of alienation, mistrust, and indifference, began to thaw." Now, in the book of the same name, Schama uses the four touchstones of war, national identity, religion, and economic success to gauge our collective health. He also explores America's prospects through the lens of its glorious and ignominious past, drawing on interviews, research, and biographical sketches of historical personages (both famous and tantalizingly obscure). He also offers his own thoughts on an "American resurrection" when the country must face, for the first time, its own limitations.
Ecco. 400 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9780060539238

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"American history is endlessly rich and fascinating, but Schama's travelogue makes it come alive in a wonderfully accessible way. ... Never condescending, his portrait of America's complexities and contradictions is entertaining, provocative, and above all, hopeful." Carmela Ciuraru

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"There are passages obviously directed at an [international] audience ignorant of the customs of the United States or predisposed to a knee-jerk anti-Americanism. But the cast of characters, historical and contemporary, familiar and unfamiliar, will appeal to readers on both sides of the Atlantic." Barry Gewen

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Schama mostly allows his seductive portraits to speak for him. ... The American Future demonstrates, once again, that Schama is a quick study, a writer of gorgeous prose, and he has a deep and clear-eyed love for his adopted land." Michael Kazin

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Schama is too good a historian to ignore the powerful forces arrayed against his rejuvenating alternatives: prejudice, intoxication with power, and the presumption of a people of plenty that the future will take care of itself. And so, the evidence in the book does not always match Schama's confidence that aroused Americans can 'turn on a dime, [and] abandon the habits of a lifetime.'" Glenn Altschuler

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"The leitmotif is provided by the Meigs family, which has managed, Zelig-like, to get involved in virtually every war and social movement since the 18th century. ... Schama, an Englishman who lives in the United States, writes beautifully about Americans of the past but sometimes doesn't seem to much like Americans of the present, at least if they don't share his fairly obvious pro-Obama point of view." Anne Bartlett

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"[The book] deserves attention on the strength of his fine scholarship, found in his histories of Great Britain, the French Revolution and the slave trade. ... As a stylist, the historian wanders from entertaining observations to ponderous, tortured phrases." Bob Hoover

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Schama's] book has a slapped-together and episodic feel, which is not surprising given its provenance. ... Here are words you never expected in this space: Skip the book and rent the DVD instead." Alan Cate

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"My major complaint with Schama's history is that he reduces everything to pat morality plays, with the forces of enlightened Right Thinking squaring off against the villainous forces of reaction. ... At least we can say that while Simon Schama, the Man of Brilliance, comes away from this book bruised and limping, at least Simon Schama the outstanding historian still survives." David Brooks

Critical Summary

As the adaptation of a television series, The American Future treads a fine line between history and a kind of quick-cut shorthand that tries to neatly define the virtues of America and Americans (the Miami Herald deemed the genre the "Earnest Television Spinoff"). Simon Schama, a shrewd and experienced scholar, writer, and commentator, makes his points clearly (the biographical sketches, particularly of lesser-known figures such as the Meigses, an 18th- and 19th-century military family, can be affecting) and chooses his examples well. Still, some readers may be put off by the author's apparent lack of objectivity and a tendency to underdeliver in making any substantive predictions based on his reading of history.