Simon Schama - The American Future: A History

Simon Schama - The American Future: A History is published by Bodley Head

States of grace

As the battle for the White House reaches its conclusion, historian Simon Schama tells Malcolm Jack how America’s dramatic past will inform everyone’s future

With its military overstretched, natural resources running dry and markets fluctuating wildly, America faces the biggest presidential election in generations this November. You might scoff that a country which gave George ‘Dubya’ Bush two terms in office deserves to swallow its medicine, but the reality is – as the credit crunch has proven acutely in recent months – American woes are often global problems, and the fallout from this vote could come seeping under everybody’s door.

So as America prepares to go to the polls, it’s worth trying to understand what’s brewing in a historical context, for in times of need no country invokes its past – however short it might be – quite like the USA. Essential reading is The American Future: A History, the latest masterful study by Simon Schama CBE, British Professor of History at Columbia University New York and much-loved UK TV personality, best known for his Emmy-nominated documentary series A History of Britain. In his new book – which will also screen as a four-part series on BBC2 – Schama casts his eye through the long lens of US history over what he see as a reawakening of American democracy, focusing broadly and vividly on the themes of war, religious fervour, race and immigration and the increasing pinch between expectations of prosperity and environmental constraints.

‘This book is a weave of the moment and the past,’ Schama explains over the phone from his rural upstate New York home. ‘Every American contemporary moment comes coloured with layers of historical richness. We tend to think of our past in Britain – whether it’s Nelson or Churchill or Bannockburn – as a kind of processional route in Westminster Abbey. In America it’s as if it’s happening simultaneously, like Omaha Beach is happening at the same time as Iraq. Like Obama is the closure of a big circle that began with Thomas Jefferson preaching liberty and owning slaves. It’s very peculiar – not just that American only has 200 years of history. It’s very Einsteinian.’

Schama has long voiced his support for Barack Obama, and believes that the Democrat candidate has a detailed understanding of the historical context of the election which could give him the edge over John McCain. For US citizens, he suggests, that context matters. ‘The sense of what America’s been and where America’s going is very strong in people’s minds, much stronger than most people in Europe think.’

For this historian, who admits to loving America – his home for almost 30 years – ‘deeply’, what matters above all is that the debate and the White House is won and lost not on the basis of mud slinging but major issues. ‘Obama did say, quite beautifully, “it’s always possible to make a big election small; it’s worked before, it could easily work again,”’ says Schama. ‘The implication being, what a tragically missed opportunity for America that would be. One hopes that it is a big election, because this is an election that the world is looking at. America is much of the world’s safety and prosperity and physical ecological health. If this isn’t a big election, one can’t imagine what might be.’

The American Future: A History is published by Bodley Head on Thu 2 Oct.

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