10 years ago I was browsing the history shelves at the then newly opened Borders branch at Oxford street, London, to choose the best single-volume of the history of America. Borders’ marketing campaign bragged about being the biggest book store in the U.K., so I was fully prepared for spending some time thumbing through lots of relevant books in order to find the perfect US history book for me.
But after going through all the ubiquitous titles of specific historic events, such as Civil War, The Revolution, The First Americans, I was in disbelief; there was only one book about the history of America.
Surely the most powerful nation that had ever existed would have historians queuing up to write the spectacular history of America?
Eventually I discovered a Penguin History of the United States, which had a satisfying 752 pages, but the overall experience was less than satisfying so as soon as I got back home I decided to continue my search online, using the world’s largest search engines and retailers, only to stare at the screen in even more disbelief soon after; the truth was that apart from a few scholastic text books and event focused titles, there were only two books about the general history of the United states. In the whole world. Physical as virtual.
Knowing how much Americans love the re-telling of their history made the empty book shelves seem even more perplexing.
Surely a nation that’s been in the making for 400 years was no longer too young to have a general history.
But, I thought, could it be that Americans regarded their nation as still being built, and until that building work was near completion it would have no concluding closing chapter, unless one ended the history at 1776 of course and started at 1492, or even 12.000 years ago when Native American settlers arrived. To most Americans, however, the nation’s history starts in the early 17th Century with the first English settlements and the Pilgrim’s Plymouth Colony; and with the 19th Century being its most expansive, on all levels:
Was there perhaps a feeling that America was heading for world dominance and any concluding chapter would be about the final momentous event in their history; the global freedom revolution – as driven through by America.
Of course, 9/11 changed all that. It was to be the catalytic event above all for the idea of re-telling the US history; the concluding chapter that ended America’s innocence and the hope for a global freedom revolution.
For a long time American history was often, and wrongly so, seen as introvert and partly isolated events existing outside of the world history, but the newly provided opportunity to write a concluding single-volume about the American history was soon embraced by historians and writers from both within the U.S. but also from far beyond its borders.
Overnight, 9/11 changed the perception among Americans that America was a chosen nation that could live in Utopia in parallel with the rest of the world.
What is also interesting is that before and right after 9/11 one of the big US history publishing trends was too write about the decline of the American Empire, whereas recently, post Obama to be precise, the themes have changed, again, towards writing about the future of America. A quick search on the internet today creates a list of no fewer than 10 titles of general US history.
America’s history is hugely important because it incorporates big ideas that were cherry picked from our common world history; and some of which have come to define us as a species.
These ideas have often been misunderstood, or rather miscommunicated, as American ideas. Also, it is important because America’s underlying pre-condition for liberty is Capitalism, which like that other ideology, Communism, has been proven imperfect when applied in too pure a form. And again, cherry picking what works best and rid the ideology of the worst parts is of course another shared experience with the rest of the world, and indeed world history.
The longer the American nation is being built, the more obvious it becomes that it exists on much the same merits as many other countries, whether present or past, and this realisation enables historians to apply similar angles and criteria when writing its general history.
Future books about America’s history will probably carry themes on the influence of Hispanic Americans, new potential roles in the world community and of course probably plenty of revisionist books about its past. However, there is still one over-arching historical problem that will not be solved until dealt with in practical political terms first, and that is the ongoing fate of Native Americans.
Could a future, and much needed, inclusion of the Native Americans’ Pursuit of Happiness offer the true concluding chapter of this great nation’s history?