Saturday, 25 July 2009

The American Future - Simon Schama

This is my fifth Non-Fiction Five read.

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. I had the pleasure of attending a conversation/reading in May featuring Simon Schama as part of the Spring UEA literary festival and really enjoyed his lecture based on the contents of his newest book, The American Future. Being too tight to buy it in hardback, I waited until the paperback edition was published this month before splashing out!

Subtitled "A History from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama", this book was written to accompany his four part BBC2 documentary series of the same name, aired last October, which I must admit I didn't watch. The book is split into four thematic sections (presumably to tie in with the four episodes) and I found each one fascinating.

Schama examines conflicts from America's past in order to understand their legacy in influencing the country's contemporary political situation and he splits this examination into "American Plenty", "American War", "American Fervour" and lastly "What is an American?". This allows him to hop around time, people and events to suit the point he is making rather than be tied by the demands of a conventional chronological history book.

He clearly illustrates just how deep the roots of racial segregation grow in this country - and tragically how the impact of this legacy could have been so easily reduced if different political decisions had been made at pivotal points in history; for example the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in the 1870s allowed white extremism in the form of the KKK to take hold. Within this topic, he covers not just the impact of slavery on modern America but also its fraught relationship with Mexico, the plight of immigrant workers and even the ethnic cleansing of native Americans. Big themes for such a slim book and I'm very impressed how clearly he links events of the past to the current political arena.

I must admit that my knowledge of American history is limited however I didn't feel that I was ever out of my depth in understanding the backdrop to events he covered. If anything, this book has made me want to seek out more books on America to learn a bit more about the country's history and that of some of the people who were so influential in shaping it. I'm really glad that I read this book after Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father as it helped me to understand the history behind some of the deep rooted racial divides that he examines in a modern context.

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