Wednesday 26 June 2019

Distortion of the American Dream

Politics: Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, Sarah Churchwell, Bloomsbury, hardback, 384 pages, €21

Noxious intent: The term 'America First' has been seized by groups like the Ku Klux Klan
Noxious intent: The term 'America First' has been seized by groups like the Ku Klux Klan
Behold, America

Niall Stanage

This book's bid to explain the current state of the US by charting the history of 'The American Dream' and 'America First' falls between several stools, but is not without moments of clarity on the nation's racial injustices.

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.

Niall Stanage is White House Columnist at The Hill newspaper in Washington, DC

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