Keep rolling along

24th October 1997 at 01:00
A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, By Paul Johnson., Weidenfeld Pounds 25. A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, By Philip Jenkins, Macmillan Pounds 37.50

Scott Bradfield reads about how dissent created the United States.

America may be the only nation on Earth that has been mapped, colonised and cultivated by refugees from itself. When the poor and property-less wanted to get away from wage-labour and indentured servitude - they went west. When dissenting ministers were exiled from the very dissenting traditions which spawned them - they went west. And when free-thinking people couldn't bear to live in a slave-owning nation - they went west, building a series of subsidiary, Pacific-leaning nations of their own. Antinomians, Quakers, Mormons, Theosophists, Anti-Renters, Christian Scientists, cattle rustlers, Utopians and gangsters: America's Manifest Destiny wasn't always pretty, but it certainly kept rolling along.

As Paul Johnson notes in his large and impressive history of everything that has happened in the United States since Columbus, Americans don't think of Utopia as somewhere that may happen soon - they think of it as something they want now. In other words - "Let's do it!" Americans are simultaneously mercenary and idealistic. They want to love and be loved by God, but only if they can make a buck doing it. The first European colony was established in Roanoke, Virginia in 1587, and promptly vanished into the vastness and white weather, leaving nothing but the mysterious word "Croatoan" carved in a post to mark its passing.

The second was established 10 years later in Jamestown by a pack of adventurers and get-rich-quickers. (Their eventual leader, a hired gun named John Smith, had spent most of the voyage locked in the brig.) And the third landed in New Plymouth aboard the Mayflower in 1620. These "pilgrims" were the first Europeans to come searching for a permanent home,so they weren't so eager to run off again. They brought their families, their idealism and their hard work. But while seeking freedom from European intolerance, they weren't always so tolerant of their own.

The "first great man" of American history, Paul Johnson argues, was John Winthrop, who described New England as that "Citty upon a Hill" which was supposed to inspire the rest of the world to live by its Godly example. As an early governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop had one citizen's home burned down for the crime of "revelling," and another's ears cut off for saying bad things about local church and government. (Both of which, incidentally, were being run by Winthrop at the time.) When more serious dissenters began to show up, they were promptly sent into exile. The most famous examples of these so-called Antinomians were Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was killed by Indians a year after her banishment, so the good Bostonians liked to hold her up as an example of what would happen to unruly children if they didn't pray and eat their greens. But Roger Williams was a trickier case. He landed on his feet in Providence, Rhode Island, made peace with the Indians, and then provided a long-lasting safe haven for all those New England radicals promoting crazy ideas such as female ministers, "revelling" and speaking one's mind.

Paul Johnson has written a number of big, dense books on uncontainable subjects such as The History of Christianity, The History of the Jews, and so on. And he is good at assembling bulky sacks-full of data along basic avenues that are easy to follow. In A History of the American People, Johnson has quite wisely focused on providing intelligent pocket-biographies of individual people, such as Cotton Mather, Ben Franklin, Harry S Truman, Herbert Hoover, and the 20th-century steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie. Johnson is not a dull writer; and he knows how to tell the story of industrious lives. When he gets into modern history, though, he starts reciting a lot of blatant neo-conservative nonsense. And this casts a dark shadow over everything that has gone before.

According to Johnson, the Watergate trial was an example of liberals doing their version of the Salem witchhunt. The Vietnam War was lost only because the liberal media misrepresented what was actually happening. (In other words, the nightly news showed film of young Americans dying in a directionless country their parents didn't care about.) And the crisis of modern education is the fault of that same old "PC" bogeyman most neo-cons like to march out on trumped-up charges whenever they get annoyed that some Afro-American university professor is getting paid more than they are.

At one point, Johnson even argues that education at the University of Connecticut (where I taught for eight years) went downhill because its president in 1990 "urged black, Hispanic, and female students to report all derogatory remarks they heard to the authorities". As a personal aside,I don't remember that this did much to diminish the learning potential of students. I do, however, remember serious faculty cutbacks, radical tuition increases, and enlarged class-sizes casting a pall over the proceedings.

Johnson's book is big, specific, and packed with information. The recently published Philip Jenkins volume, however, is thin, abstract, and theoretical. Taken together the two books, however antithetical they may look, provide complementary material. Jenkins's prose is a bit more academic than Johnson's, but he conveys a clear grasp of large dynamic issues in American culture. And that's saying something, since America, in it's huge weird way, has never been very easy to grasp. Especially if you live there.

Scott Bradfield is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. His latest novel is Animal Planet (Picador)

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