Friday, February 06, 2009

The Americans!

Our book today is the mammoth The Americans, written by the great American historian Daniel Boorstin in three volumes over the course of years, from 1958 to 1973, and that 'great' doesn't come easy: Boorstin could be intolerably smug, and he was as often wrong as right about, well, virtually everything he ever thought or spoke about. And it's hard to skirt the specters of hypocrisy when talking about him, since he railed his whole life against the American drift of shallow reductivism, but he himself was one of the best popularizers of the 20th century. He worked blazingly fast - reading, writing, drawing connections, almost instinctively coming up with the perfect way into any subject, no matter how abstruse, the perfect path not for himself but for others to follow. He was a born teacher, and in more than forty years as a public intellectual, he scarcely ever wrote a boring line.

He had his saws, and when he got to sawing, he didn't always pay close attention to the quality of the wood under his blade. He virtually single-handedly invented the vocabulary with which to describe - and condemn - what we now know as celebrity culture, but he was sometimes (especially in later life) overly casual about equating those who've stepped into celebrity with those who've devoted their lives to seeking it. I guarantee he'd have misunderstood President Obama for a solid seven or eight months before he stopped talking and started paying attention. Naturally, there was this same tendency when it came to President Kennedy, whom Boorstin, tottering quickly across Cambridge Common one beautiful autumn afternoon, once dismissed as "hair, teeth, and tonic-water" (the feeling was mutual: Kennedy once referred to him, in one grunt, as "smart; weak").

But he's gone now, and his works are left behind, and none of them even remotely approach The Americans for offhand genius, eye-opening new perspectives, and utterly memorable insights. Boorstin read everything and remembered a disenheartening amount of it all, and reading The Americans is like sharing a series of evenings with him as the two of you review the entire course of American history, with him frequently wandering off-topic and chasing down every digression he finds fascinating - and like all great teachers, he could convey fascination in a virtually one-to-one ratio. The Americans is a three-volume page-turner.

Volume One is The Colonial Experience, and it excavates the mindframes and collective experiences of a nation that was becoming all kinds of things it couldn't foresee. Indeed, it was that uncertain future - the way the new country warped, elevated, and sometimes perverted the aims and identities of all those who came here - that he singled out as his theme:

America began as a sobering experience. The colonies were a disproving ground for utopias. In the following chapters we will illustrate how dreams made in Europe - the dreams of the zionist, the perfectionist, the philanthropist, and the transplanter - were dissipated or transformed by the American reality. A new civilization was being born less out of plans and purposes than out of the unsettlement which the New World brought to the ways of the Old.

Boorstin was trained as a lawyer - he always referred to himself as an 'interloper' historian, a passionate amateur. But his summaries, even when you didn't agree with them, could cause that signature intake of breath that always accompanies watching a first-rate analyst at work. Just listen to this, never before said so pithily:

The virtues, like the vices, of any age bear its peculiar flavor. The swashbuckling grandeur of the projects of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake expressed the aspirations and daring of Elizabethan England. The clarity, simplicity, and doggedness of the purposes of William Bradford and John Winthrop were that special combination of grand end and commonplace means which characterized the England of Oliver Cromwell. Similarly the altruism of the founders of the Georgia colony of 1732 was a touchstone of the limited aspiration of the England of that day.

And here he is on the smallpox epidemic that gripped New England in 1721, and the heroic efforts of a few brave men and women who advocated the new process of inoculation to turn it around:

In March 1722, after the worst of the epidemic was over, [Cotton] Mather pointed out to the Secretary of the Royal Society in London that of the nearly 300 inoculated in Boston only five or six had died (and perhaps these had already been naturally infected before their inoculation), while of the more than 5000 who caught the disease naturally, nearly 900 had died. This meant that there was about nine times as much chance of death if one caught the smallpox in the ordinary course of infection as compared with the danger from inoculation. The fact that about half the population of Boston had contracted smallpox during the epidemic showed that from the point of view of the community as a whole the risk of inoculation was very much worth taking.

1965's volume of The Americans was The National Experience, charting the new nation as it grew and continued to morph into one identity after another. Boorstin points out that this morphing happened very fast and veined out along rapidly expanding railway lines, which were built - literally and figuratively - on a radically different philosophy than that which had governed the Old World:

By building rapidly and flimsily, Americans refused hostages to the future. They affirmed their faith that, in America, everything would change - including, of course, the techniques of railroad building. For them, railroads were by no means "a final improvement in the means of locomotion." The British confidence in the future, and in its resemblance to the present, made it hard for Britishers even to imagine obsolescence. But belief in obsolescence became an article of American faith.

And naturally, for a man who could manage to find a smile in even the worst of times, Boorstin's books are shot through with humor - he's always willing to linger a bit on a funny story, and the course of American history gives him plenty to choose from. Like, for instance, the sorry saga of the massive George Washington statue commissioned from Horatio Greenough in 1832. Greenough was, like all sculptors since Pygmalion, a thorough-going scoundrel, and in addition to bilking the government whenever he could, he intentionally produced something he knew would cause his commissioners to hit the roof. In this case, it was a statue of a seated Washington that had two problems: first, it was so big and so massive it cracked the floor of the Capitol rotunda when it was placed their ... and second, Greenough's Washington was practically goddam naked, sitting there in a vaguely Roman half-toga with his entire torso bare. You can just hear Boorstin chuckling over the sanctimonious outcry this display produced, like the New Yorker who wrote, "Washington was too prudent, and careful of his health, to expose himself thus in a climate so uncertain as ours," and he duly reports Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous cry, "Did anybody ever see Washington nude? It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine he was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."

The third volume of The Americans, The Democratic Experience, came out in 1973 and won Boorstin the Pulitzer Prize, and it's the first volume in the book that allows its author to talk directly about the multi-faceted affects modern technology has on society. Boorstin was fascinated by this, which is a little saddening to those who knew him: this was one Librarian of Congress whose thoughts on the Internet (and especially collective experiments like Wikipedia) we would very much like to have known)(history is replete with such bad timing; Erasmus, more than any human being who ever lived, would have loved email). He was sensitive to the nuances of technology in ways few writers were at the time:

By the time the fifty-millionth telephone was ceremoniously placed on President Dwight D. Eisenhower's desk, it was unusual for any American family to be out of reach of the telephone. The business of government was conducted by phone. The United States possessed more than half the telephones in the world, and by 1972 nearly a half-billion telephone conversations were being carried on in the United States each day. Still, the telephone was only a convenience, permitting Americans to do more casually and with less effort what they had already been doing before. People found it easier to get their message to other individuals whom they wanted to reach.

Television was a revolution, or more precisely, a cataclysm. For nobody "wanted" television, and it would create its own market as it transformed everyday life. It extended simultaneous experience, created anonymous audiences even vaster and more universal than those of radio ...

The Americans goes on endlessly like this, page after page of captivating reading, the very best that so-called 'popular' history can be. It's an inquiry in the finest sense of the word, a long, rambling, extremely intelligent meditation on the nature of the American nation, and it should be required reading for everybody from the President on down. A nice sturdy Library of America volume wouldn't be a bad idea, either.


Mark said...

I came upon your blog while searching for reviews of Christopher Coe's Such Times. Several hours later, I have read every brilliant word from 2006 to now. Your words on Welty are particularly fine. I thank you for them, as well as your doing such wonderful work.

Anonymous said...

Oh how to survive? A week without any new entries has been brutally hard! When will you be back? Pretty please . . .

steve said...

Fear not, O kind and wonderful readers! My unseemly drought is about over - sorry about it, but circumstances occasionally intervene, even in the life of a bookworm ...

steve said...

Oh, and Mark, whoever you are? Thank you so much for the praise (and the fact that you read three years worth of entries after just happening upon the site is a pretty serious compliment!) ... it's very pleasing, thinking something like that could happen ...