THOUGH IT IS EASY to forget today, St. Louis, Missouri, was once the fourth-largest city in the United States. At the beginning of 1904, it seemed to embody the nation’s dazzling 20th-century future. Surrounded by an archipelago of packing plants and fertile fields, laced through with fine old homes, German breweries, and redbrick streets illuminated with gaslight, and blessed with the incomparable liquid highway of the Mississippi River, St. Louis was about to become internationally known as the host of the Summer Olympic Games, but not before the opening of the World’s Fair.
Of course, calling it a “fair” was like calling the moon a pebble, for it sprawled across five square miles and contained 75 miles of roads; multiple gleaming palaces; exhibitions from nearly every United States state; and demonstrations of new technologies like airplanes, automobiles, electric streetcars, radio telephones, air conditioning, and X-ray machines. It left nearly every one of its 19 million visitors awestruck.
This would have been a happy ending for St. Louis, worthy of Hollywood — and the event was indeed the lead actor in the nostalgic 1944 MGM film Meet Me in St. Louis — but history never stays still. St. Louis never quite lived up to its début de siècle (beginning of the century) promise, falling prey to race riots and vicious segregation, and then suffering a conspicuous decline after World War II with the erosion of its manufacturing base, the flight of its white citizens to rings of pop-up suburbs, and the growth of misconceived housing projects like the doomed Pruitt-Igoe homes, demolished by dynamite in 1972. Ghosts of the past lie littered all around, and it is impossible to understand St. Louis — or any United States city — without understanding the hopes and follies of its bygone days.
This Faulknerian truism of the never-passing past is a dominant strain in Edward McPherson’s terrific new collection The History of the Future: American Essays, which examines eight cities and regions across the United States in an elegant voice reminiscent of E. B. White and Rebecca Solnit.
McPherson’s strongest and most evocative portrait is of his adopted hometown of St. Louis, “A city that lives with a sense of belatedness.” He writes, for instance, of tending a small garden in the place where the fair’s vanished horticulture palace once stood. He also produces intelligent and lively takes on the oil boomtown of Williston, North Dakota; the first atomic blast site near White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico; his family’s ancestral home of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and his television-haunted birthplace of Dallas, Texas.
Perhaps because of the complexity and irreducibility of New York and Los Angeles, his forays into those metropolises lack the narrative confidence and completist ambition of the other six. But even these provide valuable insights. New York’s essay focuses on 9/11 and the subway, and Los Angeles is the venue for a look at survival bunkers. Taken together, this travelogue of the familiar and the strange exposes multiple anxieties latent in the national subconscious: racial inequalities, the dread of disaster, the chase after short-term profits, the eroding meaning of home. McPherson’s depth of research, the inventiveness of his prose, and his sensitivity to municipal undercurrents make this a first-rate work of social analysis.
“Historical events used to be indexed by markers and monuments — physical objects that pointed to, but did not literally depict, the events that happened,” he writes.
Not so for more modern history, where imaging technology has become so ubiquitous and persuasive that nothing ever ends. We experience a reality that is endlessly replayable and remixable — on film, on TV, on cell phones, online.
This reflection is sparked by Dallas, which will forever be associated with the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the different kinds of ugliness displayed in the television hit Dallas. The primetime soap opera ran from 1978 through 1991, titillating viewers with the wealth, alcoholism, infidelity, business ruthlessness, and general vulgarity of the Ewing family and its reptilian scion J. R., whose shooting at the end of a 1980 episode provided a weird bookend to the Kennedy assassination.
Being invited to watch the filming of a Dallas reboot in 2012 gives McPherson the priceless opportunity to meet and exchange a fist bump with Larry Hagman, the actor who played J. R. It also allows him to contrast the glitzy violence of the original series with the audiovisual displays at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. To walk through a city with him is to be in the company of one who looks through landscapes rather than at them.
This capacity to see through is on display in the most personal piece in the collection, written from an upper room inside the redbrick house of his great-great-grandfather, a United States congressman from Gettysburg — where “past is both intimate and distant.” Many children of the western United States have such a house in their family’s musty past, sitting in some small town or city back east. In McPherson’s case, the bric-a-brac in the time-capsule attic includes a military sword, envelopes stuffed full of stamps, a copy of the book I’m OK — You’re OK, theological texts, and the diary of a young girl who observed the American Civil War. This cache fits with, or perhaps inspires, his own habit of saving letters and memorabilia of his own past, which he guards like a librarian.
This archival spirit filters into his writing. McPherson is a practitioner of the sampler form of essay writing, in which short declarative paragraphs, lists, timelines, quotes, signpost language, and other odds and ends are stitched together to form a colorful pattern of impressions for the reader. In Williston, North Dakota, for example, he tells us about ads in the local shopper for all kinds of oilfield jobs, a headline in The Bismarck Tribune that reads “Bakken pollution catches everyone by surprise,” and a Craigslist ad for a room the homeowner will generously rent for free to any woman between 18 and 30 in exchange for a “casual hook up” — presumably on a regular basis. This is only the start of the media clips that he assembles to present a picture of a dull and desperate place.
The overlong but lovely essay on North Dakota is weakened a bit by McPherson’s lack of any reporting from an actual oil rig — despite spending a month in and around Williston — but he makes up for it by going on a dig for dinosaur bones, which leads to a meditation on the ancient earth-forces that both created the petroleum from single-celled plankton and buried the fossils of turtles after a giant meteor strike at the end of the Mesozoic Era. This, in turn, sparks musings on our own looming confrontation with the fruits of a petroleum society in the form of climate change.
“I think of things buried, the bones left behind,” he writes. “I think of long sacrifices and short-term gains.” And this at the close of day, as he lingers on the edge of “the Badlands, and the sun sets on this world, and the last one, and the one that is to come.”