BOOK REVIEW: Behold America by Sarah Churchwell

A country is an amalgamation of dreams and nightmares: a torrent of conflicting visions that bash and crash against each other. They drive the country through triumph and disaster. They push its people together whilst systematically pulling them apart, but I don’t have to tell you this. It is most likely that you are witnessing something similar right now if you’ve switched on the news at any point in the last few years. You may have found the endless squabbles over the nature of nation identity rather tiring. You may have long since turned the television off and stuck your fingers in your ears when the neighbour mentions the headlines, but – and you won’t want to hear this – you should turn the television back on and pull your indexes from your ear canals. You should stay tuned in, keep your head about you and stay critical as all around you opposing factions fly spit at each other as there is too much to lose by denying the realities of political rhetoric.

Behold, America by Sarah Churchwell focuses in on the two slogans that have battled for domination of the American psyche: The American Dream and America First. Each of these notions, we may believe, we understand, but the history of each proves that they are not as simplistic as we might think. In this moment in time, when the USA is chanting America First once again and the American Dream has been declared dead on the ground, Churchwell’s timely exposition serves not only to give context to these notions, but also warns of the direction in which we may all be heading if we forget this context. These phrases have a complex and telling history, one that is not as reductive as they seemed. However, it is not simply a question of hope verses despair, or good verses evil, or democracy verses fascism. This book illustrates the complexities of ideology and identity, as well as the forces that seek to proscribe them.

Churchwell approaches these subjects by interchanging the focus from the American Dream to America first in successive chapters. We learn of the surprising origins of each phrase, each being over a century old. The American Dream is first floated as a critique of big money, not an endorsement of it. The American Dream emerged in the early part of the 20th Century as a response to the ruthless hoarding of wealth by corporations and barons. The stealing of wealth from ordinary Americans was seen as antithetical to the American Dream. We witness, through the initial use of the phrase, the desire to recapture the spirit of America as being one of equality. The American Dream empathised that materialistic aims were not the primary purpose of an individual’s or society’s existence. It’s evolution from a dream of societal egalitarianism to one of individual gain is traced through the years and shows that perhaps it was a more promising dream in its infancy rather than its later years.

The slogan, America First, developed progressively more sinister through the 20th century, and Churchwell shows that one really should consider the background of a political catchphrase before committing to it. The history of America First is the history of the darkest side of America in the 20th Century. There is little to spare it from an utter character assassination in this book. Used for years, it was first popularised by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 in explaining America’s absence from the First World War. It would soon represent something other than America’s international interests, but it would come to represent national integrity in many forms, specifically race. The obsession with pure-Americanism embraced the idea of American first: Americans were white and US born and if they had immigrant identities they should be second to American identity. Tracing America First from here gets darker with every page. America First became a code for unbridled racism. The toxic mix of racism, nationalism, eugenic theory and isolationism was what the KKK exploited to propel their phenomenal growth in both number and power. The KKK even adopted America First as an official motto. Later Churchwell points out the intersections between the KKK and the American fascist movements leading up to the second world war. This history of America First is also illustrated with stories of unbelievable racist violence that slaughtered thousands as populations across the States took the institutionalised rhetoric as given and engaged wholeheartedly in the mania of white-supremacy.

As we travel through the first half of the Twentieth century learning how these phrases developed, we see how their ideologies were promoted and exploited. This clever exposition is supported through Churchwell’s dedicated research skills in which she focused on real time accounts. I feel this work is not just an interesting read, but gets as close to essential reading as we can currently get. There is obviously a heady parallel that overshadows almost every page of the book. The election of Donald Trump with his dedication to the notion of America First, plus, the rise of the far-right is the ghost on every page.  The recurring pattern of poverty, disillusionment, isolationism, racism and violence is something that echoes through our age. One feels a strange combination of alarm and apathy in knowing that such things that we have recently been experiencing have happened before: apathy in that, at least we know that we can survive such times; and alarm when one comes to realise that the result of such infatuations with isolationist ideologies have resulted in untold death and destruction.

This book is not a light read and so it is difficult to know how to summarise it, but I am unashamed of recommending it as a piece of essential reading for our time. There is much to fear in this book, especially as one sees endless episodes of history repeating themselves, but there is much to be hopeful for too. The words and wisdom of journalist Dorothy Thompson stood out in particular as evidence of the spirit of America. Thompson was a journalist (as well as having been a suffragette) whose weekly columns saw through the rise of fascistic ideology in Europe and in America. She refused to be swayed by popular isolationist groups and pin-pointed the hypocrisy of American fascists and their infatuation with totalitarianism. Her clarity in an age of madness is inspiring and stands out against the traits of indecision and acquiescence that plagued most at this time. Perhaps most wisely, Thompson pointed out that when fascism comes to America, ‘they do not call it Fascism.’ It will not be dressed as Hitler’s army, it will come draped in American flags shouting patriotic slogans like America First.

Behold America is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

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Sarah Churchwell

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby and The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. Her literary journalism has appeared widely in newspapers including the Guardian, New Statesman, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement and New York Times Book Review, and she comments regularly on arts, culture, and politics for television and radio, where appearances include Question Time, Newsnight and The Review Show. She has judged many literary prizes, including the 2017 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and she was a co-winner of the 2015 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award. Her new book, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2018.

Reviewed by Jessica Gregory
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