Book review: The American Spirit, by David McCullough
History, I like to think, is a larger way of looking at life. It is a source of strength, of inspiration. It is about who we are and what we stand for and is essential to our understanding of what our own role should be in our time. History, as can’t be said too often, is human. It is about people, and they speak to us across the years.
Historian David McCullough, author of much-loved, popular works of history like 1776, John Adams, and The Greater Journey (the only other title of his I’ve read, I highly recommend) has a lot of pride in being American. He’s made it his life’s work to explore how our story, and identity as Americans, can be understood on the world stage, “to bring that story and its protagonists into clearer, more human focus,” he writes. Through his books and speeches, he’s accomplished something beautiful and moving, sharing stories from history.
The American Spirit is a collection of his delivered speeches, from the 1990s until 2016. They are, in a word, brilliant. His main theme is the spirit of the title – that we have a unique one stemming from our country’s unusual formation, from the fact that we created a new system of government and always had to be innovative in so many areas besides – education, architecture, the arts, to name a few.
I think often about why the French failed at Panama and we succeeded. One of the reasons is that we were attuned to adaptation, to doing what works, whereas the French engineers were trained to do everything in a certain way. We Americans have a gift for improvisation…Improvisation is one of our traits, as a people, because it is essential, it was necessary, because again and again and again we were attempting what hadn’t been done before.
Keep in mind that when we were founded by those Americans of the eighteenth century, none had had any prior experience in revolutions or nation making. They were, as we would say, winging it.
The book is brief but lively, invigorating in a way. McCullough recalls famous and lesser-known figures, former presidents and politicians as well as artists, architects, clockmakers, and abolitionists who have made lasting impacts on American history and identity. He reminds that we can learn from them and their good work and carry it all forward with us, that we don’t have to get mired in the darkness felt in the present day, only focus on the positive and keep moving forward with like-minded others:
Many a time I have gone off on a speaking date feeling a bit down about the state of things and returned with my outlook greatly restored, having seen, again and again, long-standing American values still firmly in place, good people involved in joint efforts to accomplish changes for the better, the American spirit still at work.
As one example of this rhetoric, in a commencement address he implores,
When bad news is riding high and despair in fashion, when loud mouths and corruption seem to own center stage, when some keep crying that the country is going to the dogs, remember it’s always been going to the dogs in the eyes of some, and that 90 percent, or more, of the people are good people, generous-hearted, law-abiding, good citizens who get to work on time, do a good job, love their country, pay their taxes, care about their neighbors, care about their children’s education, and believe, rightly, as you do, in the ideals upon which our way of life is founded.
That was written pre-Trump, but you wouldn’t guess it. The pessimistic side of me wants to question that 90 percent figure, but McCullough certainly has a way of waking up the optimist in you, of making you want to keep trying until things are finally right.
He champions reading as the way to understand the world and history, to develop ourselves further intellectually and culturally, and to keep the past, with awareness of both its progresses and mistakes, alive always. “We’re all what we read to a very considerable degree.”
This is an inspiring, reassuring read as we mark the one year anniversary of Trump’s election, an event that made me question everything I thought I knew or understood about American identity, especially as I’ve learned about and observed it from another side, while living in Europe. As McCullough quotes here, “Ralph Waldo Emerson, recalling his own time in Paris…had observed, ‘We go to Europe to be Americanized.'” That feels so very true.
But it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come, what extraordinary things we’ve done, when the last several years have brought an unrelenting onslaught of ugliness and extremes and facing what we didn’t know or fully comprehend about large swathes of the country and its pain. I felt inspired and reinvigorated reading this, I want to hold on to what I felt and learned from it to get through the bad times.
“How can we know who we are and where we are headed if we don’t know where we have come from? How can we call ourselves patriots if we know little of our country’s past?”
Recommended reading right now, especially if you’re also feeling weary on this one year anniversary, to help focus on the positive and the potential that’s still within our national character.
The American Spirit:
Who We Are and What We Stand For
by David McCullough
published April 18, 2017 by Simon & Schuster
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