ARK OF THE LIBERTIES: AMERICA AND THE WORLD
By Ted Widmer
Hill and Wang, 355 pages, $25
Ted Widmer has carved out the kind of heroically peripatetic career in entertainment, politics and scholarship that gives young men hope and older men heartburn. Widmer? If the name doesn’t yet ring a bell, that could be because he’s had more than the average 44-year-old’s share of names.
Connoisseurs of high-concept mid-’90s glam metal know him as Lord Rockingham, dandy guitarist of the Upper Crust, a Boston band known for performing AC/DC-style anthems in powdered wigs and associated ancien régime regalia. (Their tongue-in-jowl celebrations of aristocracy include "Let them Eat Rock" and "Friend of a Friend of the Working Class.")
In 1997, he exchanged one crowd-pleasing novelty act for another, leaving the Upper Crust—and a day job teaching at Harvard, his alma mater—to become a speechwriter for President Clinton. Two years after that, redubbed Edward L. Widmer, he published Young America, a well-received scholarly study of print culture in 1840s New York.
With the Bush Restoration, he returned to academia full time, and currently heads the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. (Full disclosure that rather proves the point: A prolific essayist and critic, he’s appeared often in these pages over the past decade.)
Now, with Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, a buoyant sweep over 300 years of American foreign policy, Mr. Widmer—he’s Ted again—auditions for a role even more problematical than rock star or Clinton counselor: certified public intellectual.
PHYSICISTS AND ECONOMISTS HAVE it easy these days: We’ll take them on faith (or Ph.D. credentials)—no one really wants to see the mathematical drudgery behind The Elegant Universe or Freakonomics. Anyone in the "softer" disciplines (and who among us doesn’t fancy himself an incipient sociologist, or at least the next Malcolm Gladwell?) faces a rather more treacherous descent to the hoi polloi. Popularize too much, and we feel infantilized by unfalsifiable generalities; too little, and we cry "boring," or worse, "pointy-head obscurantism"! Unfair, perhaps, but down here, the customer’s always right.
If Widmer the journalist, policy wonk and hard-rock nobleman has gifted anything to Widmer the intellectual with public aspirations, it’s an intuitive sense of what thoughtful civilians need in their popular history. From his opening ruminations on Herman Melville (who used "ark of the liberties" in a pre-Moby Dick sea yarn) to his supple portrait of F.D.R. as "nothing less than the philosopher-king of the new world coming into existence," Mr. Widmer disguises any seam between the entertaining and the edifying. In Ark of the Liberties, he’s jettisoned the trappings of academic historiography that had decorated Young America: Gone are the dry declarations of theses and methods, the minute textual dissections of period documents, and, most noticeably, the extended slogs through thickets of secondary sources. (One thing Dad does not want in his July 4 reading is "literature review.")
But Ark of the Liberties never reads like a gloss on some more serious work; delightfully, it is that work.
In substance as well as style, it yokes adroit provocation to apparent populism. United States foreign policy, Mr. Widmer argues, cannot be reduced to realist considerations of territory, markets or the global balance of power; central to its history is America’s singular imaginative power, as New World and City on the Hill—the "pitch and heave" of an "ark of the liberties" entrusted with mankind’s deliverance. "We have nothing less than a mission to redeem the world," insists the preface, "1776 genuinely signaled the beginning of a new time in human history." Such language suggests a hoary chauvinism, but don’t be fooled. Descriptive and normative perform an intricate pas de deux in Ark of the Liberties: The American exceptionalism, in Mr. Widmer’s view, is less about proving the moral supremacy of a country than demonstrating the tenacity of an idea—precisely the idea of America as exception.
This isn’t as circular as it sounds. The linchpin of Mr. Widmer’s project is that, chronologically and metaphysically, "notions of America" precede the nation itself. "No matter when you think American history begins, chances are you are beginning too late." He has in mind more than the surprising speed of early settlement. From Plato’s Atlantis on, "nearly every European tradition has a story that describes the inclination to sail toward the sunset and what lay beyond it." These stories, in fact, bled right into the real thing. After the Moorish invasion, a band of Spanish bishops were rumored to have fled to "the Island of Seven Cities"; the Muslims themselves had tales of a mariner settling Atlantic islands in the 12th century. Columbus, of course, set sail in 1492, the year the Reconquista was won.
Mr. Widmer’s broad claim is that "we still live in a terraqueous world in which myths about the New World complete with hard-won facts"; however profane its effects—that is, however unexceptional its motives may seem—the national self-discourse of the United States is directly descended from the notion of a sacred terrain free from Old World iniquities. Consider the run-up to the Mexican-American War—our first (and hardly last) war of choice: "On the surface, of course, all Americans were in favor of liberty—anything less was heresy. But the pressures on the country inevitably became pressures on the word itself. Liberty was, in fact, one of the main reasons cited for the need to expand—because to expand America was, in effect, to expand liberty." And so the ark seized territory from its "sister republic" to the south—territory promptly turned into slave states.
PRESSURE ON THE WORD itself. For Mr. Widmer, the apparent slipperiness of "liberty"—in 1776, a shibboleth of Enlightenment; in 1846, a euphemism for human bondage—is no reason to reject it as serious object of historical study. Quite the contrary. In Ark of the Liberties, the word’s the thing: Particular phrases and rhetorical tropes—metonyms, ultimately, for ways of thinking—recur and resonate over the centuries; as an omnibus volume on "America and the World," it provides a counter-history at once deeply conservative and slyly irreverent.
The insights can be deliciously unexpected. Among the most prominent touchstones—second perhaps only to "liberty" and its ark—is millennialism. From the Great Awakening to Manifest Destiny, Wilson’s Fourteen Points to the cold war, the impending 1,000-year reign of Christ—or some secularized equivalent thereof—oddly pervades Mr. Widmer’s account. In 17th-century New England, "millennialists paid close attention to the world situation as they worked themselves into a fever of expectation. … One can see a real foreign policy emerging alongside the imagined contest with Antichrist." Two hundred pages and 300 years later, Mr. Widmer points, with some glee, to F.D.R.’s assurance in his "Four Freedoms" speech that his "is no vision of some distant millennium." Once again, deliverance is right around the corner.
When Mr. Widmer’s on his game, the narrative is both synthetic and strangely synesthetic, as crackling free-form facts and pungent turns of phrase congeal into surprisingly persuasive arguments. Colors turn into theologies turn into geopolitical orientations: "New Englanders lavished attention on obscure bits of Script
ure that seemed to favor the wilderness, the West. … They understood acutely the importance of tactical gains and losses in the global structure against Rome, a ‘red’ enemy as frightening and diffuse as the Soviet Union in the Cold War." In 1941, Churchill and F.D.R. met in Newfoundland to sign the Atlantic Charter, which generalized America’s once novel democratic principles into human birthrights. The first English settlement in this hemisphere? "New-found-land," claimed by John Cabot in 1497.
In Ark of the Liberties, as in history, words are hyperlinks, wormholes and sometimes worse. As Mr. Widmer plows linearly through the generations, he spots again and again a strange fixation, rhetorical and otherwise, on "Babylon," that oriental nexus of a most un-American decadence. Not until the epilogue is the biblical city’s foreign-policy payoff clear: We’ve been occupying its ruins since 2003. ("The Puritans may have been right to spend so much energy warning their children against the place.")
THIS IS ALL GREAT fun. Call it American history as the persistence of signifiers, a close reading of our "terraqueous" world. Ark of the Liberties is only bland when Mr. Widmer strays from the giddy free association of Babylon and Atlantis. His postwar chapters settle too comfortably into dry presidential history; they shade into conventional wisdom and benign idolatry. ("As a minor participant in the Clinton administration, I realize that my perspective is hardly objective.")
He ends his gloomy Iraqi epilogue on a hopeful note: "The ark of the liberties has shown a consistent ability to right its course, and we have every reason to expect it will do so again." I was jarred by that sentence. Does Ted Widmer actually believe that our geopolitics can be directly explained—predicted—by the stories we tell ourselves? I don’t think so. But if not exceptionalist destiny, what is the true relationship between the notion and the nation—between the words we repeat and discrete events that are always new?
Ark of the Liberties doesn’t quite unpack this tangled mass of causal links and feedback loops, a historiographical challenge that may well require footnotes and theory and secondary sources. What it does do, brilliantly, is perform the problem, looping and linking in inspired arpeggios. And that’s an essential talent of the rare public intellectual who deserves the title: The riff, done right, can be virtuoso.
Just ask Lord Rockingham.
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Queens, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.