Long before the revolution, there were two Americas, implicitly at odds. The first, sponsored by Walter Raleigh, was fiery, maverick and piratical, based in Virginia, the colony named for Elizabeth I. These freebooters would become the Americans who opened up the frontier to the south and west. The second America, to the north, was inspired by the chillier steel of New England’s Puritan settlement. In 1630, its thin-lipped ideologue John Winthrop declared that this new society should welcome “the eyes of all people upon us” and shine as a beacon of hope – “a city upon a hill”.
Almost four centuries of conflict between the Raleigh and the Winthrop versions of America – one red-blooded and nativist, the other liberal, humane and egalitarian – reached a bizarre climax on 16 June 2015, when presidential candidate Donald Trump declared “the American dream is dead” and proceeded to run a campaign that promised to put “America first”, a pledge he renewed at his inauguration in January 2017.
In the US, all history is contemporary history and its rhetoric is integral to the American experiment. Not only is this centuries-old conflict still potent today, the vehemence of its expression remains as quintessentially American as ever. Ever since Thomas Jefferson raided the writings of John Locke and the intellectual treasure trove of the Enlightenment to write the Declaration of Independence, possibly the ultimate American sales pitch, this has been a society made by, and articulating itself through, the complex wrangles of language – and the fruits of language, laws.
Sarah Churchwell, a prominent critic and a professor of American literature, is perfectly placed to explore the latest disruption from a literary point of view and to do it through an examination of the two loaded phrases exploited by Trump: “America first” and “the American dream”. Her tale will probably upend what we thought we knew about America and offers history’s traditional consolation of nothing new under the sun. The past, indeed, turns out to be not only similar in many ways, but sometimes much worse and more disquieting.
Behold, America tells a story of outrageous bombast braided with the most violent arguments about capitalism, democracy and race. It’s a ripping yarn (“a genealogy of national conversations”, says Churchwell), which puts Trump and Trumpism in a category that is perhaps less sinister than we might have feared and more intelligible than we might have imagined.
Churchwell comes to her subject…