The Age of Irony and Cynicism is upon us. Sarcasm is the only form of humor, and liking, let alone loving, anything is a social disgrace. Self-loathing is the name of the game: History lies, deconstruction rules, and America sucks. Buy Nike and you’re not socially conscious; eat McDonald’s and you’re not health conscious; listen to country music and you’re not at all conscious. Any American who does anything with the flag other than burn it is a dimwit who’s been hoodwinked by the system.
All this makes the opening line of America Reborn’s “Introduction” that much more appallingly beautiful: “I suspect that this book began unconsciously as a love letter to America from a foreigner who sees it both as a second home and as an inspiration.” We could only buy this sincerity from a foreigner.
Martin Walker, a British journalist, historian, and Clinton biographer, is the foreigner selling the idea that America has produced in the 20th century a society that is positively shaping the global community of which it is a part. It is fallible, for sure. It is arrogant, and it is stubborn. But it is also a force that has started to turn around the world’s insipid racism, sexism, and economic inequality.
The telling of this story of America’s progress and rise to pre-emincy in the 20th-century is not easy structurally. How exactly does one tell the hundred-year story of the most influential country in the world succinctly and sensibly? It is not an easy task, but Walker has found a form to match his vision of America: the essence of a country composed of such a variety of people, thoughts, and influences can only be observed in the example of the individual. And so it is that some of the more remarkable Americans of the 20th-century have found their way into the pages of Walker’s “love letter.” They serve to illustrate how the unique social environment of America, with its deep-seated democratic ideals, became the breeding ground for such revolutionary ideals as would come to influence the day-to-day lives of people around the world. In a time when women didn’t have the right to vote, Emma Goldman became a leading advocate for free speech and a functional utopian government. Henry Ford believed in workers’ rights enough that he imposed a minimum standard of living wage by which his employees could one day afford a car of their own. Duke Ellington bridged racial and cultural barriers to become the most well-rounded, and possibly the most gifted, American composer ever.
In theory, this format of a mosaic of individual biographies is idyllic; in practice it leaves nothing but the desire for more. More biographical information, more societal context, more diversification of the profiled individuals. One of these is perhaps possible, but not even two could fit wholly together in something less than encyclopedic length. Because of this, and despite the unusually entertaining and lively prose of Walker’s historical text, the excitement he builds nearly goes to waste when one person’s story ends and another begins, the historical and ideological threads barely holding on.
But as with America’s hubristic stubbornness that nonetheless allows it to bolster the economies of western Europe, and slowly, eastern Europe, there is an upside to this format. In a short and enjoyable book, Walker introduces even the least historically minded citizen to 26 men and women who shaped a chaotic time at the turn-of-the-20th-century into the mostly prosperous, mostly stable, mostly good America of today. With these 26 individuals come 26 jumping-off points for further research and interest, 26 reasons to pick up America Reborn at the turn-of-the-21st-century and begin the cleansing process of replacing America’s jaded self-image with a feeling of opportunity rather than irony.