It is somehow dislocating to review a book about place and history in America during a week that was punctuated—punctured—by one of those capital H, history-of-a-nation moments. The storming of the Capitol—like the Kennedy assassination, the first nuclear bomb test, 9/11, and other events that help to structure the essays in Edward McPherson’s History of the Future—is the kind of moment that bends experience around it, splitting time into “before” and “after” as it recasts one as portent and the other as aftermath and, one hopes, recovery. “Meanings pile up; they fold, they fault,” as McPherson writes. (29)
Yet The History of the Future is not about that kind of history, or it is not only about that kind of history. The essays collected here are more often about what happens in between and around and even during those capital H moments, in the places where they happened. The accumulation and arrangement of detail and anecdote—wheat-based kitty litter has a starring role in the history of nuclear accidents, I was surprised to learn—serves to remind us how what we know and understand about a place has been shaped by these larger moments and their towering or tumbling icons, just as what we forget has been shadowed by them.
That will not change with these essays—the inflection points, McPherson seems to insist, are fixed, and filling the spaces between them will not alter the shapes they have drawn. McPherson’s essays are additive rather than transformative, attend to smaller-scale, more local, overlooked moments, including even those that never happened but were merely planned or dreamed of. Lines grow thicker, spaces more textured, and the shapes we recognize gain in dimension.
The accumulation and arrangement of detail and anecdote—wheat-based kitty litter has a starring role in the history of nuclear accidents, I was surprised to learn—serves to remind us how what we know and understand about a place has been shaped by these larger moments and their towering or tumbling icons, just as what we forget has been shadowed by them.
The essays move back and forth between pasts more and less distant and their former future, the time of writing, a “present” which, after the kind of year we have just witnessed, seems longer ago than we might expect for essays written within the past decade. The pathways between these times are strewn with detritus from drawers, archive photos and clippings, bits of rock melted by atomic blasts. This detritus makes the book for me, as I love to collect such bits of knowledge. The poem by John Donne that Oppenheimer had in mind when naming his bomb test. The precise odds of apocalypse that his boss, from his summer cottage in Michigan, had designated as the upper limit above which the whole project would be canceled. The speed bumps that would not spill milk, designed by that same man then serving as chancellor of McPherson’s university. A letter from that man’s brother cheering the bombing of Japan.
What is any of this to me? As one essay acknowledges, Cold War kids like its author—and like me—grew up in constant threat of nuclear war. In my teenage years, the image of an atomic explosion was like an analogue meme-base, the ubiquitous background of ironic wall collages and punk rock record sleeves. It was part of our consciousness, something we expected, on some level, to happen, but it had no specificity. Maybe I enjoy these essays because even something as stark as the image of the world’s first nuclear bomb, detailed in all the colors of its flare, fades a little alongside the knowledge of what music was playing to accompany it. Maybe. But more likely, I think, is that I do not know what the music means, and not knowing comes as a relief.
The collection’s first essay, my favorite, is about Dallas, and I think my reactions to it track how this collection both does and does not do what I expected of it. When I began, I thought, oh, good! All that comes to mind when I think of Dallas is the Kennedy assassination and a television show I hardly even watched. How absurd! This essay will expose my ignorance and also end it. Instead, the essay is about how all anyone knows about Dallas is the Kennedy assassination and the television show. It is not about how my perspective is wrong, but about how it is real: “for many—perhaps most—people, the actual Dallas has been overtaken by the other Dallas, the Dallas of the mind (which some might call Dallas).” (19) Of these two unfortunate defining events, the television show and its fictitious murder may have had the bigger influence: “Squint your eyes, and JFK becomes J.R., who was shot everywhere and nowhere.” (19)
The original series was “rooted in a sense of place” (3) but was proposed by someone who had never even visited the city: “There is something suspiciously translatable about a show that—in its heyday—aired in ninety-six countries in fifty-five languages.” (4) It does not matter. Dallas shapes Dallas. Behind the Iron Curtain, illicit gardeners named their clandestine grocery plot “Dallas,” we are told.
McPherson’s essays are additive rather than transformative, attend to smaller-scale, more local, overlooked moments, including even those that never happened but were merely planned or dreamed of. Lines grow thicker, spaces more textured, and the shapes we recognize gain in dimension.
We learn that the city was founded with a shelter built on a bluff, that the plaza built a century later on that same bluff was named after a local newspaperman and was meant to be the “Front Door” to the city. But since 1963, to the outside world, at least, Dealey Plaza has meant only one thing, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. That immutable fact, though, does not mean that the utopian community founded on the city’s outskirts in 1855 somehow never managed to provide the city with “pastry chefs, brewers, dancing masters, artisans . . . and the like” and so help to establish Dallas as a “cultural hub.” (5) That history still happened, still rewards attention, whether or not it bears any relation to the next century’s real and fictional shootings that will continue to overshadow it in the world’s mind. I will like to have that failed utopia nestled alongside my knowledge of Book Depositories and grassy knolls.
The essays in The History of the Future often chronicle the various ways these places and their founders, planners, architects, or investors imagined the future alongside the ways the future did and did not cooperate. Even where wrong (and they almost always were), their vision still shapes the fruits of their labors in ways they never would have wished. Did the architects of nuclear warfare imagine the cancers Downwinders would suffer? Did they envision how their waste might require transforming the landscape into “menacing earthworks” made of “fields of spikes” (132) to help protect unimaginable future generations from the toxicity of their discoveries? Of course not (one hopes). But it is their vision that has forged these realities, and my learning that some of them enjoyed hunting for antelope with machine guns will transform nothing but my own knowledge. At the same time, I am so glad I know this, in part because it reminds me that history’s value is not limited to the explanation of my own times that I am able to project back on it, and this is too is a relief.
The collection does give the sense that readers from the place an essay is about might find these details and their textures more familiar. That sense is not always borne out. The first essay is set in the author’s hometown, the second in his family’s ancestral home, but the tone in each seems as observational, even archeological, as it does about test missile sites in New Mexico, where no one can ever be from again. Something about the essays suggests that being from a place is for other people, as if the constant temporal shifts of the prose remind that we are always strangers to the past and future of any place we happen to be.
Still, I am not sure how these essays will read for people from the places they describe. McPherson worries his mother from Dallas, who resents her city being known for assassinations, will not like his essay. In her honor, he visits to find more context and comes away with the Dallas Cowboys, which might not quite fit the bill. Recently, there has been widespread agreement that an insider perspective is always the more authentic and accurate one, but I have no sense that McPherson is better off writing about Dallas than about the desert outside of Los Alamos. I am quite certain he sees things that people who had lived in any of these places all their lives would overlook, and that is as true for Dallas as it is for North Dakota.
Something about the essays suggests that being from a place is for other people, as if the constant temporal shifts of the prose remind that we are always strangers to the past and future of any place we happen to be.
But what of St. Louis, where McPherson now teaches? An outsider’s perspective on St. Louis is demarcated by a World’s Fair, an arch, and images of white flight, urban “plight,” and violence. This outsider perspective, in particular, feels like it has a body count. The essay, plotted with relation to these points, slowly demonstrates how a nation’s fixation on police shootings and protests mirrors “urban plight” tours, which in turn mirror the notorious exhibits of othered races and peoples at the World’s Fair. McPherson’s consciousness that he is probably participating in that cycle includes his outsider readers in its extreme discomfort, exposing how both our acts of looking and not looking are structured by America’s legacy of racism.
This perspective does not feel any more like a choice than knowing Dealey Plaza as the place Kennedy was killed, and I have no sense that learning more will change that. Cool details such as a photo of the boy T. S. Eliot attending the fair seem out of place alongside razed housing projects that are still missed by the people who lived in them, missed for the very kinds of life traces that, in this case, were wiped out with the buildings. My learning that neighborhoods were removed to put up that famous arch will not put those neighborhoods back, and it will not change the shape of the arch as I drive past it on my way across the country to the coasts. That my understanding might change something feels more urgent than my doing justice to Dealey Plaza but much less likely—perhaps because the moments that define St. Louis were planned so as to displace specific populations for the comfort or entertainment of others, and so come at a cost no one like me was ever asked to bear. I do not want to share T. S. Eliot’s position in this story, but the essay makes me suspect that I do.
The generalized outsider perspective these essays assume does not emerged unscathed—but it also seems distinct from and preferable to the supercilious gaze with which New York regards the country to its west. When McPherson recounts how the fiction editor of The New Yorker asked “why is there no great fiction from Dallas?”(6) on his first day of work at the magazine, it is not a moment included to garner sympathy for his former employer. The collection lavishes its close attention on places New Yorkers famously tend only to fly over (or drive past), whether major city, radioactive desert, or ancestral Gettysburg home. But New York still structures American literary publishing as inexorably as Dallas structures Dallas, and as the World’s Fair’s racist lens still frames how White America looks at those it has relegated to otherness. This ubiquitous gaze, palpable in the way The New Yorker embraces places like Iowa or Minnesota largely through their state university MFA programs, may help to explain the outsider perspective that unites these essays written by a Dallas native who lives in St. Louis.
I am a New Yorker transplant who subscribes to the New Yorker and teaches MFA students in a place I had never visited before being offered a job here. I am not unclear about where I fit into all this. I knew exactly as much, and exactly the same things, as I was expected to know about every place this collection took me to.
With one exception. There is a New York essay. And I could not actually read it.
This is not the essay’s fault—that is, it could be, but I will never know. To begin with, I have an allergy to the New York Essay. Whether it is saying “Goodbye to All That” (again) or belletristically declaring allegiance, I am Over It. I have an analogous slight allergy to celery, which makes my mouth itch and burn. Nothing against celery, but it is a taste that tells me to stop eating. I could never tell you if a tuna salad is any good or not. Tuna salads are not for me. Nonetheless, this was work, so I started reading over the obligatory part of the New York Essay that explains how there are already too many New York Essays as it self-deprecatingly adds one more to the pile. New York is an inexhaustible city, and I will be happy enough to learn whatever the equivalent of Wheat Scoop cat litter is that the essay will show me. Unfortunately, this is also a 9/11 essay.
These histories of place fill in the blanks between the often isolated episodes by which we often know the internal “elsewhere” of our own country. They do not make the places any less “elsewhere,” and they seem to know that.
I have a more severe allergy to carrots. Not only do they make my mouth burn and itch, they start to constrict my airwaves, and I get that adrenalin rush that accompanies the feeling of not quite breathing. I could not tell you what a carrot tastes like, because they taste like not being able to draw a full breath. It is not like the anaphalaxis (Brazil nuts) that could kill me, but it is enough that sometimes I even have to leave a room where carrots are being consumed. There is nothing much I can do to convince my body that carrots are benign, no matter how fresh and delicious a particular carrot might be.
Any 9/11 essay gives me that kind of physical discomfort, like an immune response to material my body misapprehends as toxic. Of course, the day was toxic, but this poor essay is not. At least, I doubt it is. My aversion is not because of an outsider perspective, or because McPherson was not there—he was. He is a wonderful writer with a sensibility I enjoy, and I would be sure to learn something from reading it. But my own drawers are full of the equivalent of 9/11 Wheat Scoop cat sand, I have more than I ever want to look at again, and I can never throw any of it away. Why would I want to collect more?
Is that how these essays would feel for people from Dallas, or St. Louis, or the oil boomtowns of North Dakota? My own issues will not tell me that. But I would never begrudge anyone their 9/11 essay. It is national history, and none of us ever asked for it to be. If it reverberates differently for people who could smell ash for months after, it can still reverberate for others in meaningful ways. I grew up with the images of atom bombs exploding all over my adolescence—the history of that bomb test is mine, too, for all I was not born. These histories of place fill in the blanks between the often isolated episodes by which we often know the internal “elsewhere” of our own country. They do not make the places any less “elsewhere,” and they seem to know that. But knowing history does not have to be salubrious, or give us insight into our own present or how it might be shaping our future. The History of the Future presents the possibility that details and locales have their own value, distinct from their place in our stories, without requiring that this value be the same for all of us.