Monday, 8 November 2010

The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

I really liked Schama's History of Britain. I'm a big sucker for the Stuarts and he made the period sparkle. His final part in the TV version was in the form of a parallel analysis of Churchill and Orwell. Now that's genius. This book's a bit disappointing in comparison.
It's set out thematically rather than chronologically, with the emphasis on the different kinds of people who've become American. It's part journalism, with Schama meeting Obama and H Clinton supporters, former generals, and baptist preachers. He even chats to George W about Mexican immigration, which he tells him is the only issue he agrees with him on. He uses these to jump around history - back to the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, the Old West, the Civil Rights Movement etc.

I think one of my problems is that this book assumes an awful lot of knowledge about American history. This certainly isn't - as they would say over there, though I'm not sure why - American History 101. He's always looking at it from different angles - which is great - but if you don't have a pretty good grounding then the new points he's making will tend to be lost.

But here's the stuff I liked - Teddy Roosevelt, whom Mark Twain correctly identified as "clearly insane...and insanest of all upon war and its supreme glories", Andrew Jackson, hammer of the indians who adopted two indian children, the sometimes humane and intelligent dealings with indian tribes, and the very ropey deal for Chinese immigrants in the west.

I also liked the positive view of America coming from a European lefty. He even has a good word to say about their religiosity, pointing out that it's us who're unusual in having abandoned religion for secularism. It's always been the country of hope and opportunity, of starting afresh, but where horrible things can happen to you, especially if you're not the right colour or religion. I still think it's the best country in the world, if only for having in its constitution the right to the "pursuit of happiness" Not a guarantee of happiness of course, but something even better.


Bryce said...

Americans call basic courses '101' because universities (and then schools) adopted a unified numbering system so that courses could be easily identified. The first of the three digits identify the year, so freshman courses start 1, 2nd year courses start 2 etc. Then the subject code (1,2,3 might relate to English, Maths, History etc) then the third digit designates the course order so if there was maybe the same subject continued in the second term (or semester) then it would show which number in the series it is. Therefore using the above; your first year Maths class in the 2nd semester would be Math 123. Over time '101' became slang for any basic course. I prefer the Orwellian use of 101.

Joe said...

US college course numbering system 101.

I still think I could take a few rats out before they ate my face. The Patrick Bateman variant would be a bit tougher.