This month, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Normandy landings, our country was moved by recalling the heroism of American soldiers on D-Day. The commemorations serve an important civic purpose, as they call to mind not only examples of sacrifice on the front lines, but the reality of the millions who were affected by those landings. In a small way, the remembrance of D-Day demonstrates the powerful importance of memory for our civil society.
That conviction also motivates Wilfred McClay’s new book Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.
Last month, Public Discourse published an appreciative review from Howard L. Muncy who, as an educator, praised McClay’s reclamation of a narrative of American history, with a stress on political themes. In this brief essay, I want to evaluate it as a work of history. Although I share Muncy’s appreciation for the book, I aim to respond to it as an historian, accounting for both strengths and weaknesses. By assessing what the book seeks to accomplish, how it succeeds, and where it could still be improved, we can better appreciate how the volume adds to the national conversation about American identity and meaning.
Telling the American Story
McClay rightly senses that part of our current political confusion results from a lack of a common historical narrative, an ability to talk about the American past coherently. In our current moment there is thus a need to recapture important stories and narratives about America.
In the face of this need, McClay seeks to tell a recognizable American narrative. He writes that he wishes to present “an accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative account . . . an account that will inform and deepen [readers’] sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.” From knowledge comes both the ability and the responsibility to serve as stewards of the American experiment.
The citizenship McClay seeks to form is one nurtured by a realistic and self-critical patriotism. He describes patriotism as something to “work upon, refine, and elevate,” not to leave as a raw sentiment. Further, patriotism should be open to those who would embrace it, neither closed off nor distorted into a blood-and-soil nationalism. It should acknowledge both the universal ideals put forward in national documents and the particular historical events and places that generated them. The universal and the particular together—for McClay, these are what are tied up in proper American historical memory.
McClay seeks to restore the perspective of historical actors, which means emphasizing the contingency of historical developments. He takes a moment in the period leading up to the Civil War to observe, “History is only very rarely the story of inevitabilities, and it almost never appears in that form to its participants. It is more often a story of contingencies and possibilities, of things that could have gone either way, or even a multitude of other ways.” This is an important assertion about human choice, and its elaboration adds drama to the historical enterprise.
Further, McClay inculcates a respect for the difficulties and contexts people in the past faced. Today, too many succumb to the temptation to judge all figures in the past by our contemporary standards (and thus, not surprisingly, find them wanting). McClay emphasizes the value of “learning to see historical actors as speaking and acting in their own times rather than ours and . . . constrained by circumstances beyond their control.” This historical reflection can serve citizens well in the present moment.
Suggestions for Improvement
Given that the historical enterprise must also ask where the interpretation or presentation could be improved, let me offer several areas where the final product was not entirely satisfying. These could also be read as suggestions for the second edition.
Two areas for consideration relate to content.
The first is in McClay’s prioritization of the political. In this, he sides with those philosophers who prioritized the active life involved in the polis, but this is a contested ideal. The book itself recognizes the spiritual experiences of some Americans but could do much more in interpreting them. Treatment of religious belief declines across the history, with good space devoted to the First and Second Great Awakenings and brief mention of Fundamentalism in the 1920s but little other religious content after the Civil War. This omission fails to capture how Americans remain a decidedly religious people, even if religious institutions are currently struggling. Further, it misses the point of what great numbers of Americans have believed to be the summum bonum for human life.
Second, although the handling of slavery in a survey text will inevitably be difficult, more treatment of this evil was warranted. Although McClay does discuss the institution of slavery and the complexities of southern life, he should have elaborated more on how slavery shaped early American life—even from the early colonial period. The book also needed to wrestle longer with the moral evils that slavery produced. Even in the realm of American intellectual history, there are plenty of voices that McClay could have drawn on—Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or Solomon Northup, for example. These would have heightened an understanding of the ironies and complexities of themes of hope and freedom across color lines in American history.
The book could also be improved in presentation—challenges for Encounter Books to consider. First, the book bills itself as “an invitation,” but I did not find the text presented in an inviting way. Color and more interesting maps and images would have made the work more compelling to readers, especially students. Second, the book includes a standard bibliography, but it is grouped far in the back of the book, in a single long list. It would have been better to place the relevant titles at the end of each chapter, so readers interested in a topic could immediately follow up and go deeper into the works that shaped McClay’s interpretation.
Still, the book remains well worth reading and reflecting on. It should gain a place in American history surveys at the high school and college level. Introducing it beside its more left-leaning ideological rivals would help present some viewpoint diversity in the understanding of the American past. If this book contributes to a nurturing of a more reflective American identity in its readers, as it has the potential to, the author will have succeeded in his goal.