The History Of The Future

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Essayist Edward McPherson takes a long, thoughtful look at 21st-century USA in THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE–-and what he sees will make you wince.

McPherson’s book, whose subtitle is “American Essays,” focuses on eight cities and sites around the country, commencing with Dallas and finishing in California’s Mojave Desert, where a man named Robert Vicino heads a company that is building a “network of underground bunkers meant to withstand the apocalypse, and then selling berths in them to the average citizen.”

McPherson, who has written fiction as well as journalism, has a unique style which uses shifting viewpoints to good effect. The portrait of his hometown of Dallas, for example, not only includes the city’s archaeology, history, architecture and mythology (“Big Tex”), but its pop image as well (formed by the TV series “Dallas,” the marketing of the Dallas Cowboys as “America’s Team,” and the glitzy merchandising of the Neiman Marcus brand).

“The business of Dallas has always been business,” McPherson says. “A town of crude, cotton, fashion, and banking. Pressure, time and decay make oil-–but the irony, of course, is that there is no oil beneath Dallas. The city is surrounded by wells in nearly every direction, but at the center it is empty, like a donut.”

Dallas is also the city we associate with JFK’s assassination. “Kennedy’s body is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but Dallas bears the wound,” he writes. “Eighty per cent of the country blamed the people of Dallas for Kennedy’s death...Dallasites felt profound embarrassment and shame.” But Dallas was never really a City of Hate, he insists. In 1957, six years before the Kennedy assassination, Atlanta, “a city of similar size, had 17 per cent more murders than Dallas, 50 percent more aggressive assaults, and more than twice the number of thefts over fifty dollars.”

McPherson’s in-depth reportage distinguishes him as a writer. He does due diligence on all of his subjects–-not just Dallas but Gettysburg, St. Louis (where he teaches college), and North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom, to name but a few. He spends lots of time at each place–two years in North Dakota, for example–researching, interviewing and observing from every possible angle. The result is journalism of the highest order–a book that courageously confronts the darkness and nihilism which are eroding the freedom and democracy America once stood for.