Two Visions of America

A review of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter Books, 2019) by Wilfred M. McClay.

Two Visions of America

What is America? If America is a place, then it will have a history like other places. People will do things, those things will have consequences, other people will be pleased or embittered or indifferent, and more things will subsequently be done, ad infinitum. The people and things will be different than in other places, to be sure, so that the history of America will not be transposable with the history of Norway or the history of the Irrawaddy basin. But if America is a place and its people are of and for that place, then “American history” will be just that, the record of things that happened in America, for as long and as far as you care to conceptually stretch the term. Siberians crossing the frozen Bering Strait would thus be entering into the history of America, a history that would also, eventually, have to reach up to include a few latter-day Americans jumping around on the surface of the moon. The Sea of Tranquility would be, in a way, a kind of American province, too.

But what if America is also an idea? What if America is not just a landmass, once filled with bison and mammoths, later with every imaginable variation of feathered and deerskinned tribe, and, most recently, with eighteen-wheelers, corrupt politicians, and Bed, Bath & Beyonds, but a Platonic vibration to which any keen soul may attune? If America is an idea, then people will not do things for the usual reasons, but for the sake of the overarching idea. Medieval Christians once built towering cathedrals for the Faith and God. By the same token, Americans, a-thrum with a big idea, would roam the earth untethered, looking for ways not to live and thrive in one place, but to transform the globe (the solar system, even) in service of the principle, the American Idea, driving them ever onwards. (One can also substitute for American Idea “Freedom and Democracy,” “the American Dream,” “Peace and Prosperity,” or any of the other slogans deployed by American idealists down the ages.) If America is an idea, then the Sea of Tranquility is just another outpost on the freedom-and-democracy vision quest that America-the-idea was, is, and ever shall be.

In that case, American history would not really be history at all. It would be a kind of fideism, an insistence that, in the final analysis, the idea take precedence over the endless turn of petty events. This and that thing happened, there were these and those betrayals and crimes, but in the end it all works out, because the Form remains unbroken, the idea abides. “American history” would become an oxymoron, a denial of plain Jane, bureaucratic whitepaper history in favor of the perpetuation of the “American dream”. To continue dreaming, of course, one must never wake up. The story would take precedence over the diurnal ephemera. One would be, not just plodding around in a desert, lost, but listing surely toward the promised land. One would have, not the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting a chain of happenstances, but the Bayreuth Festival, where high drama is superimposed on lowly dramatis personae. Everyday things would be transformed into instantiations of a struggle for abstractions not ultimately realizable in our world. The American Idea would build American history up into American History, much as Shakespeare redid a Roman assassination into an Elizabethan morality play. Caesars and Brutuses come and go, but Julius Caesar lives forever.

Land of Hope, the magnum opus from America’s greatest living historian, Bill McClay, is an inspired meditation on the tension between these two kinds of American histories. As McClay writes:

[The] principal objective [of Land of Hope] is very simple. It means to offer to American readers, young and old alike, an accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative account of their own country—an account that will inform and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges of and responsibilities of citizenship[, which] means a vivid and enduring sense of one’s full membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of one’s own country. Let me emphasize the term story. Professional historical writing has, for a great many years now, been resistant to the idea of history as a narrative. […] We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events. What we call ‘history’ and ‘literature’ are merely the refinement and intensification of that basic human impulse, that need.

In Land of Hope we see, can even feel, the fundamental American character, a mercurial Janus rooted in place and yet restless for the far horizon. We are challenged by the American story itself to answer, “What is America?” As it turns out, this riddle is a good stand-in for the American character, because the more we try to pin it down, the more it slips away from us. Land of Hope is also a marker of just how different American History is from American history, and of how much of the latter—especially the history of the South—is left out of the former. I read Land of Hope with much admiration for such a story as McClay tells, but also with the feeling of exile that Southerners have on realizing, again, how they have been written out of the History of a country that is putatively their own, but which, in the final analysis, really belongs to someone else. Land of Hope is the tale of a confident people, gliding across the globe in the service of an idea. It is also, tacitly, a confession that South and North are not and have never been one. For the Southerner, Land of Hope inspires another kind of hopefulness, that someday we might tell our own history (not History) unfettered by the myths of another people and place.

McClay as Master Storyteller

Whoever reads Land of Hope must admit that it is the work of a master historian and, yes, storyteller. McClay’s warm authorial voice glows like the bars of a prairie hearth as he relates the pageant of the American tale. Each chapter in Land of Hope could stand as an essay in its own right, an authoritative, and yet in no way overbearing, disquisition on George Washington, or the Missouri Compromise, or the Great Depression. McClay is so deft at his craft that he weaves in deep theoretical questions without the reader noticing the complexifying introduction of much more than just A did B and got C.

Thus, for example, “the moral equivalent of war,” William James’ Pragmatic reflection on the possibilities of bloodless glory, is, in McClay’s hands, an invitation to think about progressivism and imperialism and the nation-state as a much bigger tangle than, say, “white supremacy” or “print capitalism”. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Benedict Anderson, eat your hearts out. Choose any passage from Land of Hope and then read it against the corresponding passage from a standard American history textbook. The latter is sure to be so addled with tendentious virtue signaling, so rubbery and thrice-told, as to be indigestible as either prose or proposition. McClay, though, has thought deeply about the people and things of the American past. He has made America his own, in a deeply personal way, and the result is as you find it in Land of Hope—someone telling you, not about things he has heard second-hand, but about his own family, his countrymen and -women, those whom “the mystic chords of memory” unite to him in a way that goes far, far beyond Cliometrics and “intersectionality.”

McClay is at pains to point out that, yes, telling American history as a story leads inevitably to some things left out. Unlike many who plead “warts and all” history, and then go on to claim that as license for presenting the “warts only” version of events, McClay’s American history is peopled as is a portrait gallery, not with hideous monsters but with actual human beings, larger-than-life characters to be sure, but for all that more Aeneid than Wise Blood. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, McClay read the riot act to those who flatten and simplify American history, in particular low-wattage, high-voltage megaphones like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the other public-school darlings who want to tear down statues of our semi-mortal forebears and plaster over murals of the homo olympian halfbreeds who have guided the republic in the past. Thomas Jefferson had slaves, McClay writes in the Journal and in Land of Hope—but is that all we really need to know about him? Is a man not more than his shortcomings? Do not his shortcomings, indeed, inspire us to learn more about him, to see him as a creature of his own time, and to seek a deeper understanding of the ways that people hewed to before any of us, or our great-grandparents, were born?

The Perils of the American Story

And yet, as I was reading Land of Hope—the best survey of American history that I have ever read, and, I daresay, the best that is likely to be written—distress shadowed my delight. Others have cast history as a story, too: Karl Marx was one, Richard Rorty was another. McClay is emphatically neither a Marxist nor a postmodernist, but I could not help but wonder what defense one story could mount against another story. American History sees human beings where shrieking harridans like AOC see only devils and angels, but the downbeat of American history in this key is that other nations’ stories must be granted passage, too. For instance, McClay touches briefly on the Chinese Communist propaganda that 300,000 people were massacred in Nanjing in December of 1937. Original documents and evidence reveal that the so-called “Nanjing Massacre” was more limited than what the Communists now contend. Something very bad happened in Nanjing, but the slaughter of nearly a third of a million people would have been physically impossible under the circumstances of the time. And yet, the figure “300,000” is now a refrain in the martial mythos of the PRC. It is part of China’s story, just as Normandy is of America’s. Every tale has a plot, every picture has a frame.

The fact that a city in East Asia even figures into American History also gave me pause. There is much to reflect on here. In pursuit of the idea of America, Americans defied the advice of early presidents—a theme which McClay very nicely brocades into his telling—and went enthusiastically abroad in search of monsters to destroy. In the context of American History, the real tragedy of Nanjing is that it speaks of a history that is no longer American and, perhaps, not really history anymore, either. The story has taken the wheel, and there is only so much bandwidth in the narrative mainstream. The truth is that Nanjing fits in the “American” story because those Americans who ignored the wise counsel of the Founding Fathers emerged triumphant at Appomattox and then went on to ride herd over the Apache, the Hawaiians, and the Japanese. McClay deploys Peter Gatrell’s line about the settling of America being the “unsettling of Europe” as a helpful rhetorical device. The conquest of the Pacific, mutatis mutandis, would seem to be the unsettling of settled America. Nanjing, in American history, is an extension of Harper’s Ferry.

Just so, too, the burning of Atlanta. America is dead, long live the American Idea. American History must, perforce, be thus. Lincoln emerges from Land of Hope as a Sandburgian, Whitmanian figure whose baptism by Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg produced a homespun Moses, a new kind of man who was the first to breathe the air of the Union apotheosized. Tell that to the Georgians. The Union army rode through the South on a campaign of slaughter, pillage, and rape that makes Nanjing look like amateurish blundering. But all that is reckoned away by the narrative ascendant. McClay (as he did in his earlier masterpiece, The Masterless—the finest American intellectual history in print) writes with great gravity and sensitivity of the Grand Review of the Union Army, the glorious return of Union troops to Washington once the butchery of Vicksburg had been dispensed with. Gone is the fog of war; here to stay is the story of that late cataclysm.

From the South’s defeat, effected largely by wholesale Yankee terrorism, budded American History, the gospel of the Union preserved. Slavery became the shibboleth of American history for the simple reason that the Anschluss effected by our stovepipe-hatted American Bismarck was followed by a Kulturkampf against the older American types. One kind of America died in 1865. What followed was a radically different story. American history contains within itself a hermeneutic of rupture. The 1619 Project is simply yet another updating of Radical Reconstruction. After Appomattox, America became an empire, and the memories of the old unpleasantness were rectified by the blood spilled, not pro Deo et patria, but for “freedom and democracy,” globalized. There is a certain logic to the 1619 Project that fits deep within American History of the post-1865 variety. If American History, that drive to immanentize the American Idea, embraces Murmansk and Hanoi, then it might as well start on the Ivory Coast.

Who Are the Americans?

In his epilogue, McClay builds on Ernest Renan’s theorizing of the nation-state to argue that countrymen are bound together by “a shared story, a shared history.” “The ballast of the American past,” McClay writes:

is an essential part of American national identity, and it is something quite distinct from the ‘idea’ of America. But it is every bit as powerful, if not more so. And it is a very particular force. Our nation’s triumphs, sacrifices, and sufferings—and our memories of those things—draw and hold us together, precisely because they are the sacrifices and sufferings, not of all humanity, but of us alone. In this view, there is no more profoundly American place than Arlington National Cemetery or the Civil War battlegrounds of Antietam and Gettysburg and Shiloh.

Here we come to the rub, because the questions posed by these places stand out starkly and remain unanswered. American history is a sphinx who stands aloof, riddling. She draws us all in, she stumps every generation. “Who are you?” she asks us. “What makes you who you are?” Arlington Cemetery is on ground stolen from the defeated Robert E. Lee. Antietam and Gettysburg and Shiloh were where some Americans fought to end the culture and civilization of other Americans. This is surely a shared past, the blood from blue- and grey-uniformed bodies pooling together in the dust. But the question, “Is all of this America?” haunts us still. If this be our ballast, then to what extent has the ship been trimmed by casting ill-fitting cargo overboard? Nathan Bedford Forrest is a terrorist to Yankees. To me, he is a hero who fought, not out of racial animus, but to defend his homeland from depraved invaders. I would hope any other who calls himself a man would do likewise, wherever he lives. Do I, too, sing America?

To take the inquiry further, what has Washington to do with Nanjing? Once the placeness of America was exchanged for idealness—once Aristotelian-Jeffersonian America was slain in the mid 1860s and Platonic-Hamiltonian America, Cain to Old Virginia’s Abel, strode forth to many more proud conquests beyond, was the bond of patriotism truly deepened, or was it broken forever? McClay puts “triumphs, sacrifices, and sufferings” in the same rhetorical basket, but do they belong together? Surely both North and South sacrificed and suffered. But only one side triumphed. What of the other side? It’s a good question. I fear that to answer it one must do great violence to American History’s narrative arc. We must somehow view our own past as Perseus did Medusa: through the medium of a mirror which neutralizes the petrifying gaze. The sphinx, in the end, must be passed by. To make an answer is to risk exile. Let us remember that Edward Everett Hale’s “man without a country” did not go somewhere else—he went nowhere at all.

Land of Hope is perhaps the one American history book published in my lifetime which will be reread by average Americans far in the future, Americans today not yet born. It is so because it is of the author: charitable, generous, open, urbane. As a young man long ago, I sat at the feet of Bill McClay, the greatest teacher I have ever had, and began to think, for the first time, about America. It is, above all things, a land of hope. The American story trounces all comers. Old Glory waves above the din of Hong Kong because people everywhere seem to want the American Idea. Bill McClay is the hopeful and repairing angel, the lover of the good, the treasurer of the past. He wants the American Idea and American history with a small “h” to be cherished and preserved. As I closed Land of Hope I remembered all this, and remembered with great fondness the good Bill McClay.

But it was also with sadness that I read this volume. It is a story of hope, but it is not my story. McClay is the finest historian any country could hope for. But I must admire him from across the way. When Dixie flies over Montgomery again then it shall be a time for rejoicing. Until then, Land of Hope must remain a negative print of that history that I pray someone will someday write.

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