The noted British historian examines current American attitudes through the lens of U.S. history.
Schama (History and Art History/Columbia Univ.; The Power of Art, 2006, etc.) has studied Dutch, French and English cultures, among others, during the course of his career. In his latest, he looks at the United States, where he has spent a large portion of his life. The book serves as a companion piece to his 2008 BBC documentary series of the same title; in both, Schama connects contemporary feelings about war, democracy, immigration and prosperity with people and events from American history. In one effective section, he profiles several generations of the Meigs family, whose members served their country in nearly every major war. His take on the complicated subject of American religious fervor is particularly nuanced and refreshing. Schama can be guilty of overblown phrasing, as when he writes, “The Angel of History...watches powerlessly as the wreckage rises into the sky.” He also tends occasionally toward sweeping pronouncements, as when he claims, “I can tell you exactly, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead”—Jan. 3, 2008, when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. More often, though, he attenuates his prose, using well-chosen historical examples to make subtle and insightful points, such as linking post-9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry to past nativist movements. The book contains some wonderful moments: President George W. Bush confiding that anti-immigration congressman Tom Tancredo is “an idiot”; Schama embracing his dry cleaner, whose son had been killed in Afghanistan. The author’s fascination with and affection for the United States shines through, and he provides many engaging insights into the nation’s past and future.
Ambitious historical examination of what it means to be an American.