Review: Nick Sweeney on The History of the Future by Edward McPherson

I made the mistake of reading The History of the Future before I went to bed. It was a mistake not because of anything Edward McPherson said in particular, it was the mere notion of thinking of place. I thought about my hometown, of minor celebrities who went to the local high school, the nearby historical house that George Washington supposedly slept in, the old aerial photograph of the town stuck between two bookshelves in the public library. I thought about nothing else but place for several days, thinking about the WPA created sidewalks and the Robert Moses planned roads and bridges. McPherson’s is a rare tour guide you’d like to take with you long after your trip to the museum is over. You remember not only the things he talked about, but the way he described them.

McPherson’s travels take him from Dallas, Texas, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the numerous oil fields of North Dakota to underground bunkers of Los Angeles. He talks about the St. Louis World’s and the setting of the Manhattan Project. This is the America we know, or ought to. It’s nearly impossible to escape the continuing divergence in the fabric of our country. We have isolated but cultivated ideas of what a certain place might be but McPherson’s expedition into the physical, emotional, and cultural caves of those places help break that mold. This is a book written to help understand, if not empathize, with the idea of place. Now, more than ever, we need to.

Mythology in the United States is caught between folklore and history. JFK’s assassination is both real and unreal at the same time. In a matter of seconds, a nation is forever changed. It acts as a permanent shadow over the skyline of Dallas, Texas. McPherson focuses not on the event, but the aftermath of a city as it searches for a new identity while grappling with the old one. In this essay, amply titled “Echo Patterns”, McPherson notes the cultural growth of a “city that resists narrative.” How do you escape one of the most notable events in the history of your country? McPherson showcases that struggle between reality and history, that guilt of coming to terms with how we came to be beautifully:

Nothing ever ends. It is only a click away. And because events never end—and because the images themselves offer no clear and stable interpretation , but instead can be endlessly dissected and debated—the past, as the saying goes, is never really past. Because we can witness the past, we think we can know it—but we can’t, not fully. The footage remains grainy, no matter how close we get. And that frustrated sense of knowing/not-knowing leaves us stuck, on the verge of an illumination that never arrives. We can’t put anything behind us.

In the backdrop of this search, we are introduced to the attempted (and successful) mythology of the show Dallas. Through an almost anthropological microscope, the reader sees the connection, and the vital importance, of creating a new mythology to move forward with. While the entire collection showcases this time and time again, there is something utterly beautiful within this particular essay that portrays the search for identity. It’s here that the reader’s own imagination (and investigation) begins.

A reoccurring theme throughout the expedition of the American past is the constant struggle with the role history has in our everyday life. Do we have enough or do we hunger for it? Do we listen to history when we must? The essays on North Dakota’s oil wells and Los Angeles’s bunkers are rather timely, to put it bluntly, for the world as it stands today. They both encompass Americas that might be very new to the coastal readers. It’s easy to write off the conspiracy theorists and the temporary oil boom towns and argue over facts and fracking. It’s easy to forget that our sense of place creates who we are, who we become, and what we make next. McPherson wrestles with this throughout:

What do you do when you’ve exhausted the past and the present—when all those looks back and at tell you nothing about what lies ahead? History’s a meddler, forever hammering at your door, unannounced, just when you should have expected it but didn’t. What if, as the years pile up, you realize there might be nothing salvageable—nothing you can learn, anyway? Present life seems a muddle, at best, and yet something tells you to keep going—there must be an answer somewhere down the road.

When we escape into literature, especially now, we seek to go to other worlds. McPherson shows us that we don’t necessarily need to travel far, to take the scenic route, to that escape. The History of the Future should be required reading for those who grapple with understanding our past. It’s necessary for us to remember how place can impact us, perhaps now more than ever. So when you read this book and put it down back on your bookshelf, take a moment to see out the window at the world that was, what it is, and what it could be.

The History of the Future, by Edward McPherson. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, My 2017. 288 pages. $16.95, paper.

Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.

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