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Brilliant Books

LPC en la biblioteca | Mayo 26, 2009

donkey-elephant-1.jpgLo recorté para Antonio, aunque imagino se que ya lo habrá leído en el New York Times: David Brooks agarra la historia de América según el profesor Schama y escribe una de las críticas más graciosas y despiadadas que he leído en mucho tiempo, además de radiografiar un virus editorial que no solo acosa a La Tierra de la Libertad.

The Brilliant Book is the sort of book written by a big thinker who comes to capture the American spirit while armed only with his own brilliance.

He usually comes during an election year so he can observe the spectacle of the campaign and peer into the nation’s exposed soul. He visits the stationsof officially prescribed American exotica. He will enjoya moment of soulful rapture at a black church. He will venture out to an evangelical megachurch (and combine condescension with self-congratulationby bravely announcing to the world that these people are more human than you’d think). He will swing by and be brilliant in rambunctious Texas. He’ll be brilliant in the farm belt, brilliant in Las Vegas, reverential in Selma and profound in Malibu.

Along the way, his writing will outstrip his reportage. And as his inability to come up with anything new to say about this country builds, his prose will grow more complex, emotive, gothic, desperate, overheated and nebulous until finally, about two-thirds of the way through, there will be a prose-poem of pure meaninglessness as his brilliance finally breaks loose from the tethers of observation and oozes across the page in a great, gopping goo of pure pretension.

These are the moments we Brilliant Book aficionados live for.

Y así sigue. Cuando dice lo de Torcqueville casi parece Antony Lane...


Alexis de Tocqueville introduced the genre and ruined it by actually being brilliant. In the 19th century Brilliant authors came with their superior European sensibilities. In the 1980s, Jean ­Baudrillard came armed with Theory and set the modern standard by dropping puerile paradoxes from coast to coast: “Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity.” Brilliant! “Here in the most conformist society the dimensions are immoral. It is this immorality that makes distance light and the journey infinite, that cleanses the muscles of their tiredness.” Brilliant!

Today, Brilliant writers seem to come with camera crews, and they seem to do much of their reporting while the crews set up their visuals. I enjoyed Bernard-Henri Lévy’s meditation a few years ago, and now the great historian Simon Schama has entered the field.

Schama was born in Britain and makes documentaries for the BBC, but he has spent more time in the United States than most Brilliant authors, having taught at Harvard and now Columbia. But this is very much an outsider’s book, and if Schama doesn’t come from a strictly European perspective, let’s just say he comes from the realm of enlightened High Thinking that exists where The New York Review of Books reaches out and air-­kisses The London Review of Books.

His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.

Schama toured the country in an election year and went to a few rallies — Obama, Clinton. McCain, Romney. He did the megachurch thing, apparently coming away with the impression that the Christian Coalition is still a vibrant organization. He measured the sensibilities of his candidates and found, as you’d expect, that Barack Obama was very much to his liking.

The modern reportage is pretty thin, and as you are reading these pas­sages your main interest is in figuring out how he is going to segue from the present, which is his service to the publishing industry, to the past, where his real talent lies. How is he going to get from, say, John McCain to the 18th-century botanist Billy Bartram? These transitions require great effort and hence arouse great interest.

Once safely in history and liberated from the insufferable demands of the Brilliant Book genre, Schama is of course quite good. His specialty is finding interesting midlevel characters from the buried mounds of history and telling their stories. In the first great chunk of the book, he tells the stories of the Meigses, a fascinating military family that has passed down the twin ideals of service and civilization from generation to generation.

By Schama’s account, in the early 18th century “a young Meigs” was rebuffed by the young woman he hoped to marry. He was mounting his horse to ride away when the woman relented and cried out, “Return Jonathan Meigs.” He therefore named his first son Return Jonathan Meigs, and before long Return Jonathan became a hero in the Revolutionary War.

Montgomery Meigs, a descendant, became quartermaster general for the Union Army during the Civil War — his “righteous anger translated into cold efficiency,” as Schama writes. He and his wife, Louisa, lost a son in the war, and mourned him fiercely.

“He seems to have left his footprints everywhere in this house, traces of his hand in books or work of some kind I encounter every day,” Louisa wrote. “He has left such a void, such an aching void in Mont’s heart and mine that we must go down to our graves sorrowing. . . . Mont never dwells on this sorrow, he seldom speaks of our dear boy. I know it pains him to do so but he could not find indulgence for his grief as I do but it has entered his inmost soul.”

There are many fine characters like that in the book: Jerena Lee, a black woman who traveled the country and delivered 692 sermons in 1835 alone; George White, who managed a choir in the 1870s to raise money for Fisk University; Grace Abbott, who worked with Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago and published a groundbreaking book on immigration as the United States entered World War I.

These gripping portraits are grouped in broad categories — war, religion, race —but Schama has no argument to promote, just stories to tell and a sensibility to exude. My major complaint with Schama’s history is that he reduces everything to pat morality plays, with the forces of enlightened Right Thinking squaring off against the villainous forces of reaction. Pro-immigrant activists are saints, and anti-immigrant restrictionists are villains. Peace-loving Jeffersonians are enlightened, and hawkish Hamiltonians are power-mad.

Surely it is an oversimplification to call Douglas MacArthur “the incarnation of Hamilton.” Surely, it’s a little simplistic to portray Theodore Roosevelt purely as a bully-boy warmonger and Andrew Jackson as an early Bull Connor. They were both more complicated than that.

But one is prone to forgive Schama these prejudices. If you’re making a documentary, then each incident has to be in the form of a “60 Minutes” episode, with good guys and bad guys. It is only natural that his evaluations would reflect the standard sensibilities of his milieu.

Besides, he’s a man trapped in the most punishing of literary cages. Jacques Barzun once observed that of all the books it is impossible to write, the most impossible is a book trying to capture the spirit of America (I first read this truth when I was three-quarters of the way through my own attempt). Schama has assigned himself a mission impossible. No one should wish a Brilliant Book upon any other human. And at least we can say that while Simon Schama, the Man of Brilliance, comes away from this book bruised and limping, at least Simon Schama the outstanding historian still survives.


David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.



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