Pondering the Glory of America: Wilfred M. McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story

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Americans
are a morally ambitious, aspirational people. They are also a pragmatic people.
These two qualities often find themselves at odds, and American citizenship
often takes a seemingly self-contradictory form because it can manifest itself
as criticism of America’s shortcomings in the light of her moral aspirations, or
deep appreciation and affection for what she has achieved and accomplished in
the light of the difficulties she has faced.

These
two manifestations of American patriotism are today locked in battle over how
to view American history, which some, in the light of her founding aspirations,
deem to be irredeemably unjust, and others, in the light of the pragmatic, see
as an undeserved gift today’s citizens are blessed to inherit. Recent battles
over Columbus Day and Civil War-era memorials to Confederate soldiers may be
taken as representative of this bifurcation among the citizenry.

Unfortunately,
both of these visions of American history tend to obscure the mystery and
messiness contained in history, American or otherwise. More often than not,
history is a kind of stage on which breathtaking, beautiful, and sometimes
dreadful things occur, and it is the historian’s task to tell the story of
these things, and to inquire into why they happened the way they did, where
they did, and when they did.

This
is not to say that the historian is above history or that he sees history from
a God’s-eye perspective. As Wilfred M. McClay writes in his excellent new
history of America, Land
of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story
, “history always
begins in the middle of things.” Not only does any historical inquiry assume a
context that precedes the period one is discussing, but the historian himself also
writes and inquires from within the middle of things—he exists, writes, and
inquires within a previously existing context or “web of meaning.” This is not to
say that the task of the historian is meaningless. On the contrary, the
historian is, like all other human beings, informed by his particular
circumstances, and it is in fact these particular circumstances that give human
life meaning.

Particulars
are infused with meaning. As embodied beings, humans access universal meaning
through particular objects—I learn to love through my mother’s care and
tenderness, I learn truth from Mrs. Johansson’s raspy voice teaching
third-grade lessons in spelling, I learn beauty by gazing at the dappled light
of the trees falling on the old white crown molding in my living room. It takes
a lifetime to inquire into and find the meaning in these initial experiences,
but the fact of meaning’s presence in them is no less so at the beginning.

As
a result of their embodied, particular orientation to the world and the
universal meanings contained in the particulars, human beings are “at our core,
remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways
we find meaning in the flow of events.” Indeed, the search for meaning in the
particular events that surround them is not a luxury but a necessity for human
beings.

McClay’s
“invitation” to the “American story” is animated by the confidence that his
fellow Americans feel the need for meaning, they enjoy a good story, and they
know a good story is both entertaining and just. It is also animated by
humility, a sense implied in the title that the American story is inexhaustible
and that all he can do in this (almost 450-page) book is extend a hand to his
reader with an offer, not an argument. And in this McClay succeeds: the beauty
and mystery of the story he tells will attract readers much more than any
massively critical or triumphalist argument ever could. Throughout, he includes
paragraphs-long series of questions after he has told sections of the American
story—not the classic textbook questions your AP History used to assign, but
questions worth pondering, the kind of meaningful and seemingly unanswerable
questions Socrates used to pose to his young interlocutors who thought they had
a handle on the meaning of Athens but who didn’t yet know they had not yet
begun to think.

Even
those who believe America’s history to be a case-study in oppression and injustice
will be hard-pressed not to consider McClay’s account of American history
beautiful. America has always been a land of hope, according to McClay, and
there is perhaps no more fundamental desire and hope embodied by America than
the desire to belong. American history can be seen as a result of the
unsettlement of Europe and the settlement of the “new world” in the West, and
therefore as the fulfillment and continual unfolding of a deep-seated desire of
human beings for freedom and belonging simultaneously.

To
return to where we began: A land of hope is one that is ever moving toward a
better future but also one that must see its limitations and appreciate how to
work within the context of limitation. McClay’s account of America ultimately
points readers toward this seeming contradiction which, in his woven-together
story of the country, reveals itself in the end as the glory of living out
tensions inherent in the human condition. Neither the critical nor the
triumphalist views of American history are, in the last analysis, the most
comprehensive accounts of America. Instead, McClay invites his reader to
consider that the glory of America is in managing and living out the tension
between her high ideals and her historical circumstances. That glory, though
not without its difficulties and frustrations, is worth pondering with a sense
of wonder, a sense McClay helps engender in his reader.

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