Be­hold, Amer­ica: A His­tory of Amer­ica First and the Amer­i­can Dream

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Sarah Church­well

Blooms­bury, hard­back, 384 pages, €21

What does Amer­ica mean? The world’s dom­i­nant su­per­power has veered all over the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal map in these early years of the 21st cen­tury. The seis­mic shock of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001, trans­formed an avun­cu­lar, self-billed “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tive” named Ge­orge W Bush into a wartime pres­i­dent whose dreams of re­mak­ing the Mid­dle East foundered amid hubris and hope­less­ness.

Unto the breach stepped Barack Obama, whose sta­tus as the first black pres­i­dent represented redemp­tion, of a kind, from Amer­ica’s toxic racial his­tory. His 2008 elec­tion was also no­table be­cause — at a mo­ment when the na­tion was be­set by grave mil­i­tary and fi­nan­cial crises — the of­ten-de­rided US elec­torate put its faith in a man of unar­guable in­tel­lect, calm­ness and eru­di­tion. And then it didn’t. Eigh­teen months ago, Don­ald Trump — Man­hat­tan busi­ness­man, re­al­ity-TV per­former, Mus­lim-ban ad­vo­cate and self-con­fessed grab­ber of gen­i­tals — won the pres­i­dency over Hil­lary Clin­ton in the great­est elec­toral shock of a life­time.

The shocks have kept com­ing on a near-daily ba­sis while Trump has sat in the Oval Of­fice.

They have also given new ur­gency to the ques­tions of what the United States rep­re­sents, how its past ex­plains its present, and what may lie ahead.

Sarah Church­well is the lat­est en­trant to the al­ready-crowded field of ex­perts seek­ing to pro­vide in­sight. Church­well is a US-born, UK-based aca­demic — a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Lon­don — whose pre­vi­ous books have cen­tred on F Scott Fitzger­ald’s clas­sic novel The Great Gatsby and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.

Her new work at­tempts to re­fract some light on the cur­rent landscape through an in­ter­est­ing lens — a look at the his­tory of two im­por­tant though dis­parate terms, “Amer­ica First” and “The Amer­i­can Dream”.

The story she un­spools over fewer than 400 pages de­liv­ers some in­sight­ful and po­tent mo­ments. But it never co­heres into a com­pletely per­sua­sive whole.

One weak­ness that could have been avoided con­cerns its pac­ing. The book’s in­tro­duc­tion and epi­logue seek to con­nect its themes to Trump and the present day. But the pe­riod of Church­well’s main fo­cus stretches roughly from the start of World War I to the end of World War II.

There is noth­ing in­her­ently wrong with that, of course. But — per­haps to present the book as a more gen­eral his­tory than it re­ally is — she then fu­ri­ously crams in sev­eral decades at warp speed.

It’s dis­ori­ent­ing to move from lengthy ex­am­i­na­tions of 1920s Amer­ica to a pas­sage in which the jour­ney from the 1950s to the 1990s is com­pleted in four pages.

There is a more fun­da­men­tal prob­lem, too. Only one of the two ma­jor con­cepts that Church­well ex­plores — “The Amer­i­can Dream” — ap­pears to have changed in a lin­ear and clearly de­fined sense over time.

The chap­ters that deal with that con­cept give the book mo­men­tum and the mak­ings of a nar­ra­tive arc. But those virtues are lack­ing in the con­sid­er­a­tion of “Amer­ica First”, a term that has car­ried a sub­text of na­tivism and, to a greater or lesser de­gree, out­right racism for much of its ex­is­tence.

Some peo­ple like those in the Ku Klux Klan have de­ployed it with more gra­tu­itously nox­ious in­tent than oth­ers, such as Trump. But there are only so many times Church­well can note the xeno­pho­bic un­der­tone to the slo­gan and still ex­pect to hold the reader’s at­ten­tion.

The same can be said of her ten­dency to in­clude vir­tu­ally any men­tion of her cho­sen phrases, how­ever mi­nor.

To take just one ex­am­ple among many, a more ju­di­cious editor would surely have ex­cised the fact that “an at­tor­ney in Port­land, Ore­gon, spoke on ‘The Amer­i­can Dream’ at a lo­cal elec­tion and pic­nic” in the 1930s. None of this is to deny that Be­hold, Amer­ica has its more com­pelling parts.

By far the most in­trigu­ing as­pect of the book is Church­well’s chart­ing of how ‘The Amer­i­can Dream’ in the past con­noted some­thing less ma­te­ri­al­is­tic and more col­lec­tive than is now the case.

She notes, for ex­am­ple, a 1938 New York Times book re­view as­sert­ing that in­come in­equal­ity is “clearly con­trary to the Amer­i­can Dream pro­mul­gated by [Thomas] Jef­fer­son”.

The first mean­ing­ful men­tion of the phrase that Church­well can find came in 1895, when a speaker com­mem­o­rat­ing the Civil War hero and for­mer pres­i­dent Ulysses S Grant in­voked the Amer­i­can dream not in terms of ma­te­rial ac­qui­si­tion, but in­stead to sig­nify a land that can take pride in “her free in­sti­tu­tions, her equal laws, her gen­er­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties, her school­houses and her churches”.

Else­where, Church­well burns with a dry rage about the racial in­jus­tices the United States in­flicted on its non­white ci­ti­zens.

Re­fer­ring to how lynch­ings and other forms of vi­o­lence in­creased as black peo­ple made mod­est eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal gains early in the 20th cen­tury, she writes: “The idea of be­ing ‘up­pity’ — fail­ing to know your place — is also the logic that al­lows op­pres­sors to con­vince them­selves that their vic­tims had it com­ing, that pro­vok­ing vi­o­lence is the same as de­serv­ing it.”

Un­for­tu­nately, such mo­ments of clar­ity and power tend to dis­si­pate over the book’s length, as Church­well falls be­tween sev­eral stools.

Be­hold, Amer­ica ends up bolt­ing to­gether a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of the con­cept of the Amer­i­can Dream, an overly pon­der­ous ac­count of Amer­ica First, and a brief anti-Trump in­dict­ment.

Church­well’s central con­cept here could have made a su­perb mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle in high-pres­tige Amer­i­can ti­tles like The New Yorker or The At­lantic.

Stretched out to book length, it will wear thin for all but the most com­mit­ted read­ers.

Church­well burns with a dry rage about the racial in­jus­tices the US in­flicted on its non-white ci­ti­zens

Nox­ious in­tent: The term ‘Amer­ica First’ has been seized by groups like the Ku Klux Klan

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