I can’t recall another moment when the history of this country has been so at odds with its future. Our political institutions are in peril; environmental catastrophe grows nearer every day, and the disparity between the haves and have-nots has never been greater. It is, in other words, the perfect time for a book such as “The History of the Future,” which pulls no punches as it investigates the foibles of our nation through a series of eight warning essays.
In many ways, Edward McPherson is like a tour guide to the ordinary places in our lives — Dallas, St. Louis, North Dakota, Los Angeles — but he also knows what’s hidden under the manhole covers of New York City and in the desert sands of the Southwest. And with subjects ranging from the Manhattan Project to the Bakken oil boom, and from the St. Louis arch to the assassination of President John Kennedy, he proves himself to be a master chronicler of our nation’s incongruous trajectory.
In “End of the Line” — an essay about the history of tunnels and the subway in New York, the city’s great essayists, 9/11, memory and nostalgia, to name a few of its subjects — McPherson writes: “That the brain is wired to deceive us — to conflate past and present — seems to be an evolutionary advantage.”
Here and elsewhere, McPherson implies that our memory and the trauma that attends the worst of it is something we pass from one generation to the next, individually and collectively as a society. The history of the future, in other words, is not only already written in the past, but it is in many ways unavoidable.
Take the matter of the North Dakota oil boom as an example. Despite all our knowledge on the perils of the fossil fuels industry, we continue to mine the earth of her natural resources in a way that virtually guarantees our decline, if not our decimation. Why? Wanton greed and hubris are in no small part to blame. But McPherson suggests that the real and more appalling reason we continue our assault is because we so willingly look away from the lessons of science and history.
It seems appropriate that McPherson ends his collection with an essay about bunkers designed to save us after the apocalypse. After all, the culminating effect of reading this book is one of despair. History has repeated itself in ways big and small, but one of the constants of the world we’ve made is that we’ve often looked for ways of destroying it. The Civil War, the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, environmental disaster, we’ve stood by for all of it.
McPherson has written a book for our times, one that hopefully doesn’t signal the end of them.
Peter Geye is the author of the novel “Wintering,” due in paperback in May.
The History of the Future
By: Edward McPherson
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 268 pages, $16.95.
Event: 7 p.m. May 3, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S, Mpls.