The American Future: A History
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Acclaimed historian and award-winning author Simon Schama offers an essential historical perspective on the crucial 2008 presidential election and its importance for reclaiming America's original ideal.

It's not business as usual. Cultural hostilities more irreconcilable than any since the Civil War have divided America in two. In November 2008, the American people elected a new president, feeling more anxious about the future of the nation than at any time since Watergate. Our omnipotent military, the cornucopia of material comforts available, the security of our borders, and the global economy can no longer be taken for granted.

In The American Future, historian Simon Schama takes a long look at the multiple crises besetting the United States and asks how these problems look in the mirror of time. In four crucial debates—on wars, religion, race and immigration, and the relationship between natural resources and prosperity—Schama looks back to see more clearly into the future. Full of lost insights, The American Future showcases Schama's acclaimed gift for storytelling, ensuring these voices will be heard again.

Customer Reviews:

  • I was hoping for so much more.........
    I must confess that I am pretty big fan of history, American history is many times underrated because there is only a little over a couple hundred years of it. This in the grand scheme of things isn't a lot, not compared to world history. My personal interest in American history as well as other social study issues sky rocketed when I began (and attained) my Master's degree in social sciences. So when I saw this book I thought it would be so cool to read. A modern spin and take on where American was and where it might go. After reading the book, I felt very disappointed.

    The book begins by Simon Schama dissecting the 2008 Presidential primaries in Des Moines. I felt for the first few pages I was going to be reading a "bash the right wings" book. Which wouldn't have bothered me too much, it isn't a big secret the GOP has dropped the ball in recent years, yet when a book says "A History" on it, taking political sides makes "history" a bit subjective. Needless to say this prologue/book didn't and did bash names, political strips and was pseudo balanced. Is this history?

    This book was broken into four sections. Section one: American War, section two: American Fervour, section three: What is an American? and section four: American plenty. Mind you the information in this book was good, although I am a little dubious on how much of it is based on fact. Subsequently continuity isn't really my biggest complaint about this book at all, my biggest complaint is presentation.

    I found this book to be VERY insipid. I felt like I was sitting in a really bad history class and the teacher's monotone voice and lack of enthusiasm was inducing the tundra of everlasting comatose. Seriously, I felt the presentation was really hideous. I found myself skipping ahead or looking to see how long each section was. When I wasn't partaking in this ruse, my mind would keep wandering off what I was reading. I found myself wondering if I have already paid my student loan or if I could squeeze in another car payment; fantasying about paying my bills is not how I want to spend my time when reading a book.

    The funny part is I really do enjoy American history, politics or any form of social sciences. In addition, I like to think I have a good attention span. I have read books that have taken almost one hundred pages for something to develop, after about forty pages in this book I was regretting I ever started it.

    Perhaps this book and I weren't made for each other. Perhaps my lack of fondness of this book has nothing to do with Schama's writing style. Perhaps Schama's writing style is biased in such a subtle way that it was vexing me on a subconscious level. Perhaps after all the federal bailouts, a national debt that is becoming bigger and bigger, one of the most ridiculous (and expensive) Presidential elections in recent history and how modern government is more concerned about showing the opposition resistance than what is right for the American people that I just needed a break from American history/politics. Whatever the culprit was or was not, I just didn't care for this book....more info
  • Meandering
    Where is America going? Ask a dozen people, you'll get a dozen answers, based on political affiliation, age, gender and other factors. Not every answer is equally valid, as not all people will really have the knowledge necessary to make an educated prediction (though one only has to watch political pundits to see that even intelligence is no guarantee of accuracy. Simon Schama may have as the title of his new book American Future, but he is on safer ground than most, as he looks to the past more than the future.

    Schama is a good writer and knows his material, but this book is a bit of a mess, a rambling look at American history from a semi-outsider's point-of-view (Schama is English). Centering around the 2008 election, Schama looks at some of the current issues and sees how they were handled in the past. First, he looks at American wars, focusing on the Civil War and the life of Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and the role of a good supply line in leading to victory.

    Schama also looks at the role of religion in history, particularly with its ties to the Civil Rights movement. He looks at the history of immigration and makes a good case that - despite modern claims to the contrary - the anti-immigration movement has always been permeated with racism (that's not to say that everyone opposing immigration policy is a racist, but the movement itself has a dark side). Finally, he discusses the history of American abuses to both its natural resources and the Indian tribes that previously occupied the land; in the expansion of the American frontier, neither man nor animal nor plants would stand in the way of progress.

    What keeps American Future from being a good book is Schama's meandering approach to his narrative, one that comes off as a slightly more rational version of one of Abe Simpson's pointless stories on The Simpsons. Dashing from subject to subject and back-and-forth in time is not really the best way to write a history book. Too well-written to be ignored but too muddled to be worthy of true praise, American Future is a mixed bag. If you're a Schama fan, maybe you'll enjoy this book, but if you want a good history of the United States (or any of the topics discussed within), you're probably better off looking elsewhere....more info
  • The future is now!
    Simon Schama is a very intelligent, articulate, charismatic sort of man. He has this amazing ability to make history, and even current events, come alive in a way that really surpasses all others.

    I first saw him doing this in A History of Britain - The Complete Collection, where he brought British history to life for me in a way I'd never really experienced before. Now he does the same with the seminal 2008 Presidental Election.

    Though it was less than a year ago, in may ways a lifetime seems to have gone by. Heck, this time last year it was still Hillary v Obama, and McCain waiting in the wings, smirking. We'd not even heard of Sarah Palin yet, lucky us.

    Schama tells us the story of the election and the events leading up to it, giving us a full picture of the history that lead to the present and will take us into the future. True, you might not care all that much about the origins of West Point, but you get invaluable background to our current reality.

    I've often said that the only way to understand the present world is to know the past, and by doing so, you can better know the future. A book like this will help....more info
  • Shortest Review of All
    And yet, I wish that I could toot the author's horn for writing this book. An ambitious project, looking forward to the history of our country sounds daunting and complex and yet the author has made it pretty simple.

    The author appears to be a fan of very liberal politics, which he calls "democracy," although many of us would argue with him and suggest that democracy last occurred during Reagan's White House. Certainly, democracy as foreseen by the founders of our country is not what we are experiencing now.

    I selected this book because I am newly interested in politics and the history of our politic past, and yet I didn't find the information that I was hoping for. Maybe our divergent political backgrounds are to blame, but whatever the reason, I found this book disappointing. I did, however, admire the author's extensive research and his use of language. Great writing skills. Unfortunate bias.

    ...more info
  • The American Past
    Despite the title, Schama has written mostly about the American Past, contrasting the wonderful promise of America with its often bigoted and hypocritical performance. Discussion of the future will be mostly in the epilogue, which, according to a publisher's note in the advance proof, "will be added at the last possible moment." (which means that the epilogue is not yet available to be reviewed.)

    Schama writes well, so that the book is pleasant to read, and it enlightened me about several points of American history, so it is well worth reading. Someone who has majored in college in American history might learn little from it, but I, who avoided history courses like the plague, learned a lot. In the required history course, I often knew the subject matter well, and on the exam, wrote as fast as I could all period, got nothing wrong, but received a C for not writing nearly enough. I deemed it unwise to take any more history courses, but retained my desire for knowledge of history. Dry recitals of dates and events make tiresome reading, but history books like THE AMERICAN FUTURE and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, which make history come alive, are valuable reading, as are some historical novels, such as Miriam Grace Monfredo's Blackwater Spirits, Must the Maiden Die, North Star Conspiracy, and Seneca Falls Inheritance; and Kenneth Roberts' Arundel and Rabble in Arms, to name but a few. All of these are lively reading, well deserving of five stars. One can learn a lot about history from such novels, and even from some novels of `Alternate History,' such as Eric Flint's 1632 and its sequels.

    I am really looking forward to the publication of THE AMERICAN FUTURE, so that I can read the epilogue, the only part that will really be about the American future.

    [...]...more info
  • A history of the future
    A cogent, well-organized tome that elucidates a potential future without obfuscation. Recommended for those that care about America not becoming Amerika....more info
  • 2008: Rewinding or Renewing American History?
    Simon Schama is a gifted expatriate British historian now working at Columbia University in New York City. As an historian, he has a remarkable nose for political hypocrisy, an eagle's eye for the unvarnished rough and tumble of power politics, and a talent for illuminating a moment or an era through the story of a single individual. Schama brings those considerable abilities to bear on the US Presidential Election of 2008 in "The American Future."

    Borrowing a bit from the earlier styles of Theodore White and David Halberstam, Schama's thesis derives from the multiple crises that faced the American electorate in 2008. He finds that controversies over war, religion, race and immigration, and the relationship between resources and prosperity have deep roots in American politics. Thus, while Schama starts and finishes in the present, the bulk of the book is spent examining how the Unites States dealt with these questions in the past.

    Schama's journey takes the reader back to the beginnings of the Republic and political duels over its meaning between founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. Schama explores the delicate balancing of religion and the state in the Constitution and in the life of the nation. That discussion nicely hooks into the problem of slavery and the continuing challenge of civil rights. The nation's changing, messy, and often ugly attitudes toward immigration are chronicled. Finally, Schama examines whether America's traditional if episodic material prosperity is still a reasonable expectation.

    Schama is no respecter of historical tradition. His narrative is fresh and provocative. For example, progressive President Theodore Roosevelt is taken to task for his handling of the Philipine Insurrection. President Andrew Jackson, champion of the common man, is chided for the forced removal of the Cherokee nation to Oklahoma. Americans in general get a reprimand for the blatant power play that tore Texas from Mexico in the 1840's.

    "The American Future" will not please all readers. Schama telegraphs his preferences in the 2008 election. He seems just a little too comfortable using the incomplete, often inaccurate instant history of the main stream media in his interpretation. The connections between American history and the American present are not sharply drawn; at least a few readers may be left wondering. His finding, that the American democracy is uniquely capable of renewing itself, borders on political commonplace.

    "The American Future" is likely to appeal to students of the American poltical process and to fans of Simon Schama's particular perspective on popular history, and is therefore highly recommended to those audiences.
    ...more info
  • Chronological ping pong
    Simon Schama is an honored historian and obviously a brilliant man whose chronologically connected mind moves back and forth freely between the present, the recent past, the distant past, and the future, even though that doesn't exist yet. His title, The American Future: A History, is, of course, an oxymoron--you can't write a history of something that hasn't happened yet, although you can prognosticate about how we got to where we are by looking back at where we were. Schama adds an additional complication by blending his personal experience into the historical mixer and recounts his own response to contemporary events right next to analyses of the distant past. The result makes for an uneven book, and it's often hard to follow just where it's heading. With a lively prologue proclaiming the return of American democracy in the Iowa caucuses in the past election when Obama and Huckabee upset the front runners we expect generally more of this analysis of contemporary events, but we get a lot less of it as the book progresses, with many more side trips down historical roads. If your mind works the way Schama's does, I suspect you'll enjoy the book; but if, more likely, you need connective links to make sense out of this chronological ping pong, you may find
    the book less satisfying....more info
  • An insightful, fascinating exploration of our American heritage
    This is yet another fascinating, exceptionally well written book by one of the world's finest popular historians. I write "popular" advisedly, because while Schama, a first rate academician, writes for a broader audience than merely his peers in the academy, he manages to write books that appeal to both. THE AMERICAN FUTURE is a particularly interesting one in that Schama, British born and bred, has lived in the United States for a quarter century.

    One reason why this book is directed at a broad rather than purely scholarly audience is that this was written alongside a series that was made for the BBC that was later shown on the History Channel. The premise of the series concerns the frequent talk during the 2008 election of the future in America. Schama's contention is that the future of America can be read off its history. He finds precedence for both America's foibles and its strengths in our past. He explores this by analyzing four themes in our national history, each of which is given its own section in the volume.

    Part One of the book, "American War," explores the existence of and tension between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian visions of the American military. While Jefferson opposed a standing military and was determined to avoid a military elite, Hamilton favored a strong federal army and an imperial stance in the nation's foreign policy. Although Schama discuses a host of individuals and events, his constant touchstone is General Montgomery Meigs, who served as the quartermaster general for the Union in the Civil War. Clearly Schama is concerned, as many Americans are, with the increasingly Hamiltonian cast of our military policy. While Jefferson and Meigs envisioned a military that was subservient to civilian needs and concerns, as a nation we seem to be more and more Hamiltonian, conducting national policy through the military.

    The second section, "American Fervour," deals with American religion, in particular the national commitment to a separation between church and state on the one hand, and the many times that organized religion has seen its religious duty to intervene in American polity. Examples of the latter include the involvement of religious individuals in opposing slavery and later in fostering the Civil rights movement, which he obviously and uncontroversially regards as a very good thing, as well as the more recent and far more contentious opposition to abortion by many on the religious right. On this he feels ambivalence. No one can fail to applaud the role that religious individuals played in opposing slavery, but even many fundamentalist Christians feel that the recent involvement of evangelicals with right-wing political causes has been a mistake. Schama also recounts in some detail the great American contribution to religion: the separation between church and state. Although many fundamentalists have recently tried to argue, despite the irrefutable evidence of history, that the Founding Fathers in fact wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, Schama looks at just a tiny bit of the evidence for the reasons why the Founders wanted to keep religion and separate in American life. I felt a lot of pride in Schama's account. I was raised a Southern Baptist and although I left the denomination after a string of appalling proclamations by the Convention (such as wives were to obey and be subservient to their husbands), I remain very much a traditional Baptist in my beliefs and orientation. As a child growing up in the Geyer Springs Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, I routinely attended Vacation Bible School each summer. I remember vividly being taught there about the role that Baptists and Roger Williams played in establishing the wall between Church and State (Jefferson used that famous phrase in a letter he wrote while president to the Danbury Baptist Church in Danbury, Connecticut). We celebrated this as one of the great contributions of Baptists to American life. This is why it is both deeply ironic and terribly tragic that Southern Baptists in the past thirty years have turned their backs to several hundred years of Baptist history and striven to break down the wall between church and state.

    The third section is on America's dubious history on questions of inclusion and exclusion, a section Schama entitles "What is an American?" This is a subject that I always get very depressed over. America is largely made up of immigrants and some of those - including my own predominantly Scotch-Irish ancestors - inhabited this continent by driving out and killing the native population, even while keeping millions of slaves. It has always struck me that the current inhabitants of the continent are a lot less entitled to the country than they often suppose. My ancestors have been here for roughly two hundred years, which is almost like yesterday looking at the planet as a whole. Schama knows this as well as anyone and he does a good job of uncovering the silliness and hypocrisy of American attitudes towards immigrants and inhabitants of other countries.

    The fourth and final section deals with America's territorial expansion despite the overuse of America's finite resources, in particular water. One of my favorite parts of this section is Schama's discussion of the ideas of John Wesley Powell, who is one of my personal heroes. Powell understood the inescapable limitations of the American West for human habitation as well as anyone, and before anyone else. But Schama also explores the alternately na?ve and optimistic belief in American know how as capable of overcoming any limitations in nature.

    All in all, this is another excellent book by a superb writer. It isn't, despite this, one of his very best books. If you are looking for a very fine book by a non-American who has come to love and admire America while remaining acutely aware of its shortcomings, then by all means read this. While this isn't my favorite book by Schama (or even among my five favorite), it is nonetheless a delight. I've pretty much come to the conclusion that Schama is incapable of writing a bad book. I do think that his very best books are not tied to TV series, but even the "companion" books are of considerable interest....more info
  • Not a place to give up on
    The American Future: A History is a delightful bundle of narratives that seem to underscore Schama's thesis that Europe should not give up on America; that for every "bad' (racist, imperial, anti-immigrant) America there is a "good" (liberal, anti-racist, anti-imperial, and pro-immigrant) America--and that the good and the bad sometimes reside in the same person. Take the Meiggs family for example. Montgomery Meiggs managed the Civil War and many have claimed made a Union victory possible; his descendant teaches a course on `Why presidents go to war when they don't have to'; and one of his other ancestors, White Path, ended up betraying the Cherokees. Or take Harriett Beecher Stowe's father--a fervent abolitionist and an equally fervent anti-Catholic whose "Boston sermon against the Catholic invasion of the West was duly followed by the burning of an Ursuline convent in that city."

    But somehow or another, Americans because the institutions the Founders (imperfect men all) created have such faith in the American peoples, the Americans are able to get up and move on and, what is more, to reinvent themselves.

    This, Schama suggests is indeed a land of opportunity by which he means a place of boundless energy. A place where people can, through good times and bad, recover the better angels of their history; and so create their own future. A place in which a transplanted agnostic English Jew like himself can be made to feel at home even in a mega-church where the seats were marked SAVED.

    A place where an Obama candidacy (the book was written before the election) to the highest office in the land was as possible as a Muslim Congressman taking the oath of office on Jefferson's Quran. As possible as Jews being able to vote and hold office; in short to be citizens and Jews all at the same time in the newborn American republic at a time when this was simply not possible in Europe.

    This, Schama says, is surely not the sort of place Europeans or the rest of the world for that matter should give up on. Simon Schama (who has lived more than half his life here) certainly has not.

    I strongly recommend this book for the history you won't often get (the history of momentous events is told most often through the eyes of "secondary" characters like the Meiggs family; Major Powell; Grace Abbott; others like them) and for the writing that flows easily from theme to theme without bothering too much with chronology. It is in short a history that reads like a good novel.

    Did I mention I recommend it?
    ...more info
  • History Today and Yesterday
    Simon Schama looks at four issues that have harbored in American history. With a critical and detail eye, wars, religion, race and immigration reflect the events that have occurred in the United States since her founding and parallel the most recent as a result of the election of 2008. This book is an elaborate historical commentary on American democracy and its present reawakening. All of the pinnacle events mentioned in the book have played a part in shaping and changing the social, political, and religious landscape of the country and are discussed with the present in mind; there are links to America's ancestral past especially with Schama's examination of Quartermaster General of the Grand Army of the Republic, Montgomery C. Meets, who established war cemeteries as an act of domestic reparations during the Civil War and his long line of descendants who carried on the tradition of military and political service.

    THE AMERICAN FUTURE: A HISTORY may be an advantageous title. But the book rests highly on politicized commentary that stresses an editorial tone with references of present political actors, which may date the book years from now. However, the various historical references examined may make-up for that part of the book, especially Schama's theme of democracy in America and Alexis de Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers. This is the highlight of the book, although it is intermittently dispersed throughout Schama's narrative, as well as the other significant theme that complements the story of America, the self-made man. Fellow Frenchman Hector St. John de Cr¨¦vecoeur attempted to live the life and interpreted this aspect of American society within his legendary LETTERS OF AN AMERICAN FARMER narrative.

    For the most part, Schama parallels events from the seventeenth and nineteenth century, especially the era known as the Republic, with the twenty-first century. As a historian, he meticulously caters each event within four sections of the book. One may say that the entire book resonates a string of clich¨¦s as it relates to not learning from history as well as a mirror of events that show how far America's has come since its inception and its future.
    ...more info
  • Looking backwards to move forwards--3.5 stars
    The 2008 Presidential election, despite all the hype about new themes and ideas, was really just a continuation of a few time-tested American themes. At least it was according to Simon Schama.

    In The American Future, Schama examines what he views as the four main issues of the campaign: war, religion, immigration, and the environment. What makes this book different from most coverage of the election is that Schama attempts to embed these issues into the grand arc of American history. Schama does not use the outcome of the election as a starting point for extrapolating into the future. Instead, he places each of the four debates into its respective historical context.

    To do this, Schama frequently moves between past and present, mixing stories about people he met throughout the US during 2008 (this book is a companion to a BBC television series that was shown on a few PBS stations recently) with research on historical figures, many of whom are somewhat obscure. So, in the section about war, for example, the history of a distinguished American military family, the Meigs, which spans close to 400 years, is interspersed with an exploration of how veterans in Texas view the current US campaign in Iraq.

    What, then, is the point of all this? It's actually quite simple, even though the message is slightly hidden by the book's complicated structure. Schama, like most people in the US, has been affected by the national feelings of anxiety that began after the 9/11 attacks and reached new heights during the financial market implosion in 2008. He seeks to show that many of the things Americans are worried about, especially the big issues of the election, are really nothing new. The United States has faced these problems before. And, reassuringly, Americans have always found ways to survive--or even thrive--in the face of these challenges. Best of all, this survival is due to many unique facets of the American character, not because of any special qualities American leaders may (or may not) have had during times of crisis.

    Bottom line: at its core, The American Future presents an optimistic view of what lies ahead for the United States. This book is not a light read; Schama writes in a dense, somewhat dry style that takes on an academic tone at times. Still, The American Future is a worthwhile book for anybody who is interested in taking a long-term view of the events and issues of the 2008 Presidential election. 3.5 stars....more info
  • Personal Reflections on America
    THE AMERICAN FUTURE: A HISTORY is Simon Schama's very personal book about his adopted country. Schama moves back and forth between genres as he explores the themes of war, religion, immigration, and energy. Really the book is an exploration of the American Dream, in its many different manifestations. The book contains history, but it is equally a book of political commentary and personal meditation.

    The book has a number of commendable features. Schama is a great writer, and his prose is, for the most part, clear and engaging. I found myself not wanting to put the book down on a number of occasions. Schama also has a very fertile mind. He connects the various strands of his narrative in inventive ways. Though these connections can sometimes be controversial, they are always interesting. Another benefit of the book is that since he covers so many different aspects of American life, chances are he'll give you his take on your favorite soapbox.

    Though the book is good, it could have been much better. Most of the historical narrative focuses on the Revolution and the Civil War, the founding and refounding of America. As I said, these chapters are very engaging and well written, but it seems as though Schama repackaged other scholars' works, adding his own spin. This isn't a terrible crime, but it does make this "history" a bit of a disappointment coming from a noted scholar.

    Another disappointing aspect of this book is that Schama's tone occasionally becomes inexplicably uncivil. The book is, on the whole, written in a winsome manner, yet every so often, Shama makes comments that are beneath him. Those comments regarding Dick Cheney (whether deserved or not) seemed particularly harsh and unfortunately cliche.

    Very few people will agree with everything Schama writes in this book, but open-minded people of all political persuasions can profit from his meditations on the ideals of America. ...more info
  • What IS the American Future??
    The historical sections are very well researched and written quite skillfully. Some of the contemporary linking stories are just a little too strident, as if "Kumbaya" was sung forcefully and angrily with riffs on an electric guitar.

    Certainly people are worried about our future, and Schama has the insight to pick out definite turning points in our past. However skillful his writing, and it can be quite beautiful, I am worried, because Schama and others like him continue a extremely liberal political ideology, which ignores the darker side of leftist thought, that only provides counterpoint and justification to the right extremists such as Limbaugh. We need more centrist writers to cool the jets of the polarities that are pulling the nation apart.

    That is truly the focus of what we need to think about next... how CAN we construct an American Future? What is the common thread anymore? Where is Schama's vision of the American Future, that can sew us back together? That is missing from the book, or it is not explicit enough to warrant the title.

    We also need to re-imagine, re-mythologize our American "civic religion"...the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights. Once we deified the Founding Fathers, up until the 1970s. History took another look at Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, etc. and uncovered unsavory things about us Americans. The reality of the Pilgrims, of Columbus, and of the genocide of Native America. But once the statues were torn down, nothing was put in its place for the masses, except "Get Rich or Die Tryin'."

    Post-modernism in academia is saltless goo, good for nothing except getting tenure. Academia destroyed our old American myths of George and the Cherry Tree, and the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere...but nothing was constructed out of the rubble. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater. It's time we the People do that. We gotta rescue the Baby called the American Future....more info
  • Good historical book
    I found this book to be concise and easy to read. It reflects today's issues using the past as a barometer for the future. Schama is great at making history come alive and relevant to what is happening now. I would reccomend this book to anyone interested in current events, history and how politics plays into the future. ...more info