Friday, October 30, 2009

The Soul of America Laid Bare

The Penguin History of the United States of America
by Hugh Brogan (2nd edition, Penguin, 2001)

One of the things America is fairly good at is history. Of course, it is hard to find a historical building in the USA that has an original brick or yard of weatherboard left in place, but what is remarkable and alien to the Brisitsh mind-set is the way they most Americans embrace and connect with their history. Certainly, also, their understanding of great events of the past is often a bit one-sided, given two to three generations of Hollywood conditioning. After all most history gets written by the winners, which means that the losers are all too often made to look like natural losers or bad guys or both. Nevertheless, most modern Americans get the point of their War of Independence, their appallingly bloody Civil War, the dreadful legacy of slavery (only ended in 1863), and so on. And contrary to how it may look, they grasp the main points of world history as well - at least the rather numerous parts of it in which American casualties have been involved.

Things are not as open here in Britain. Believe it or not, most of us have only a tenuous grasp of our own history, let alone anybody else's. Of course in one sense Britain is obsessed with history, but it is not the history of ordinary people like you and me. Medieval aristocracy and castles may have a superficial romantic appeal, and as academic subjects they are characterised by exemplary discipline and honesty, but to 95% of the UK population they are Other People's History. Other than on the fantasy level, there is no personal involvement or commitment or even continuity. It's a recipe for apathy, bigotry, and a general lack of self-understanding.

If this is Britain's attitude to her own history, what then will be its attitude to the history of that Great Embarrassment, the lost Atlantic empire? This was the original British Empire, whose loss triggered the desperate thirst for a replacement which was eventually slaked by the establishment of a second and decidedly less glamorous and comfortable British Empire in India. The answer is that our collective memory has drawn a kindly veil over it (and also, incidentally, over the indirect but nonetheless devastating diplomatic and military defeat by the French that it represented. Of course America is not totally absent from the school syllabus; students variously learn about the settlement of the West, Martin Luther King, the Cuban Missile Crisis, even the Korean and Viet Name wars. But in reality America is the Bermuda Triangle of British history, the great silent factor, the missing key to understanding every era of Britain's past since the late 16th century. Little wonder then that Britain understands so little of itself (and for the record, I do write as a Briton), when one of the key factors that would give coherent sense to these four centuries is a no-go area, a field ring-fenced against popular awareness through systematic neglect by educationalists and popular publishing houses.

Hugh Brogan's engrossing historical overview of America's past, from pre-history through to about 1990, has the best chance imaginable of changing this ingrained habit of thought. Brogan's academic credentials are impeccable, and yet unlike many academics he writes with grace, wit and considerable passion. While rarely short-changing the reader on hard facts, he never lets facts obscure the thread of the story, and that is all-important, because unless we see how one thing leads to another we will have nothing to contemplate but a bunch of meaningless facts. From the British viewpoint this is invaluable, because Brogan shows how Britain itself has been shaped by its transatlantic engagements at every key stage since the dawn of its own modern nationhood.

And far more importantly (for this is primarily a history of America, rather than of Anglo-American relations), Brogan has done for the United States what only a warmly sympathetic outsider can do for any country. It needs both commitment and detachment in equal parts to sketch out the key events of a nation's history (and explain their meaning) free from the agenda that everyone has when they have grown up in a country and lived its internal political and economic tensions first hand. He has no bias, no wish to perpetuate the socially divisive myths that the older generations have grown up with, and yet equally no wish to tear down the essential beauties of the American dream. Few American historians have totally avoided one tendency or the other, because American historians are by definition protagonists in the still unfolding American story. In contrast, Brogan is socially, politically and economically uninvolved, but he is nevertheless caring and deeply attached to his subject, and he is not afraid to say what he thinks.

Thus whether you are British or American or neither, this book is the ideal starting point for an honest investigation of America's fascinating past - and an indispensable key to understanding its stormy present.

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