Memory  /  Book Review

An America Where Everyone Meant Well

Jonathan W. Wilson offers a constructively critical review of Wilfred McClay's American history textbook "Land of Hope."

Unfortunately, Land of Hope’s vision of the United States is too limited, both ideologically and methodologically, either to achieve its own goals or to help explain the United States we have experienced this week.

What are its goals? In this book, McClay sets himself three tasks. First, Land of Hope is supposed to offer a coherent narrative, which many textbooks allegedly do not. Second, it is supposed to help readers understand themselves as responsible citizens of an American political community, bound together by that common story. Relatedly, this narrative should stir readers as American patriots, giving them a feeling of “membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history” (xi)—but not inviting them to sit in judgment on their ancestors.

McClay insists that the third goal does not require suspending one’s critical faculties, nor rejecting America’s cultural and ethnic diversity. Land of Hope will be full of flawed characters, frustrated plans, and all-too-human moral failures, as well as people whose ancestors came from around the world. Nevertheless, running through the book will be a sense of hope and love for country based on the “great story” that Americans share.

To be drawn into this story and thus lay hold of this hope, McClay writes, the reader must simply be content to judge past Americans by the standards of their own times, avoiding the “tendency to condescend toward the past” (xiv).

This is presumably a conscious echo of E.P. Thompson’s celebrated dictum against the “enormous condescension of posterity.” In any case, a blurb from the Brown University professor emeritus Gordon S. Wood, printed inside the cover of the teacher’s guide, uses similar language, declaring Land of Hope“accurate, honest, and free of the unhistorical condescension so often paid to the people of America’s past.”

What does non-condescension mean to McClay? One thing in particular, it seems: Land of Hope constantly reassures us that Americans meant well.

Yet “unhistorical condescension” would be a fitting name for the book’s evident conviction that people whose lives do not fit into the resulting national hopefulness story don’t quite count—and that the people who ignored their protests for justice could not really have been expected to do otherwise.

Take the people who lived in the Americas millennia before European arrival, for one example: McClay explains that “they are only in the most remote sense a part of American history” (5). Later, their nineteenth-century descendants’ treatment by the U.S. government is presented as regrettable, an indecency reflecting “a failure of imagination” by white people with good intentions (116). Yet in this book, Native Americans are, ultimately, a sort of temporary blockage in the national story, “tragic victims of the relentless drive toward national consolidation” (222).