A few years ago, I was talking to my friend Charles Sides about my long-time goal of writing a history of the United States beginning with modern times and working back to its beginnings. He loved the idea, and every so often nudged me to try it. So, i more or less wrote it, sending off a new section every so often. I intended to call the resulting book “America’s Long Climb: How It Reached World Power,” or something like that.
(I intended to have an acknowledgements page that read: “Notice! This book is dedicated to my good friend and occasional traveling companion, Charles Sides. He nagged. This book is his fault.”)
Since I probably will never get around to trying to publish the book, it occurs to me, i should publish it here, bit by bit, in the way it was written. So, unless i forget, I will publish another installment every Sunday, in the way that I am currently republishing my novel Messenger every Friday. Enjoy!
Introduction: Taking back-bearings from history
History usually is told by starting somewhere and moving forward in time, because, of course, that’s the way our minds work. But this comes with one large disadvantage: Starting in the unfamiliar past and working toward the more familiar present requires that we be able to make the imaginative leap to the starting point. If you can’t make that leap, you can’t really get started. If you don’t know anything about history, how are you going to understand a book about the French and Indian War? The initial investment in learning relationships and circumstances may be too overwhelming.
Decades ago, I wondered, what if we could wrestle our minds into telling the story backwards? Suppose we were to start where we are, or close to where we are, and progress back, showing how we got here. Could it be done? It seemed worth trying.
The first step is to narrow the field of study. While I’d like to read the story of the whole world, I certainly couldn’t write it. So what part of world history was I most familiar with? What subject, extending to our day, would likely be of interest to readers and would be more or less complete in itself? What could I sketch in outline given my own limitations of time, energy, knowledge and skill? The question answered itself. Where else but the United States where I was born?
From our arbitrary starting date of the year 2000, we could work backwards to settlement by various European powers. That would be more than enough for one project! It would suggest connections continually as we went along, and would leave the reader in 1607, or perhaps 1492, in a world vastly different from the one we live in today, one perhaps a little more accessible than before. I suppose you might think of it as working backwards along your family tree.
All right, then, the history of the United States from today back to its beginnings. Within that general subject, what could we include, and what should we exclude? What would be the most useful to the reader? What would be of greatest interest to me as writer and examiner? Most of all, what would be the most feasible?
I decided that the theme should be how America came to be an overwhelming presence in the world. We don’t need another recital – backwards! – of a list of presidents. Instead, we might look at how the whole of our history shrinks, as we look through the wrong end of the telescope, to a smaller but perhaps brighter and more focused vision. Then I’ll leave it to you to bring yourself back to the present with a clearer view of how we got to this troubled present through a series of troubled pasts.
1 Twentieth century (2000 back to 1900)
World political power
Global empire — pax Americana? — reconstruction and Cold War — World War II — political isolation — World War I
World economic power
technological revolutions– oil shocks – postwar boom – reconstructing the world – manufacturing World War II – Bust following boom – supplying the Allies in World War I – the first trans-oceanic possessions — National domestic market
World cultural power
Internet – Computers – JFK – Television – FDR – Radio – Woodrow Wilson – Victrola – Airplane – Movies – Automobile – Theodore Roosevelt