As our geography has long insulated us from foreign invasion, so has it shaped our temperament and enabled us to become a world power, a category we must modify but continue to inhabit.
In his latest book, Atlantic contributing editor Kaplan (In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, 2016, etc.), a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, employs several approaches. Memoir, literary history, military history, geopolitical analysis—all weave throughout this knowledgeable (and for Kaplan, brief) work. Literary allusions to Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and others appear continually, as do extensive meditations on key works about America, which Kaplan calls his “sacred” texts. Principal among these are several by Bernard DeVoto, Walter Prescott Webb, and Wallace Stegner. Kaplan pauses to discuss these texts—which he believes are enduringly relevant—during a long coast-to-coast (east-to-west) car trip he took in the spring of 2015. His was a jagged journey, up and down as well as side to side, and the author visited the usual (Mount Rushmore) and the barely known (small crumbling towns). He notes the vast waterways in the East and Midwest, waterways that allowed settlement and commerce to flourish, and he comments on the aridity of the West and the challenges it continues to present. Not everything he notes is newsworthy—e.g., there is lots of obesity in rural America and sameness in suburban shopping centers; small Western towns are dying—but in his final sections, Kaplan discusses in scholarly but accessible detail the significant role that America has played and must play in this shuddering world. He believes that we are the only ones who really can do so. He also notes with sorrow our treatment of Native Americans, our dire history of slavery, and other colossal failures of heart and humanity.
A text both evocative and provocative for readers who like to think.