At one point while I was reading The History of the Future, someone asked how it was, and I looked up and exclaimed, “The essays are almost too perfect.”
I’m still not sure what, exactly, I meant by that, but I stand by it. I suppose I don’t often encounter the sort of essays that fit what I describe essays as being: seemingly random and digressive all while ending up at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. McPherson’s essays are everything essays should be: in love with the mundane, inquisitive, personal while still aimed at unpacking the wider world in new and interesting ways. Each of the essays shares the same format: braided and fragmented, moving in and out of topics that don’t at first seem to go together, though the connections become clearer and the ideas start to become metaphors for each other—a style of writing, I’ll admit, I am a sucker for and easily drawn to. Each essay was a delight, and I found myself frequently sharing tidbits of information I had learned with others in conversation. Most of the essays are simply observational, but even in the argumentative ones, the rhetoric convinces without coercion, forceful because the facts are presented as mere observations, not because McPherson is a personal force on the page.
Each essay focuses entirely on one place. The first essay is about Dallas, Texas, where the author grew up, though the essay isn’t about his childhood. Rather, it is about the Kennedy assassination and about the soap opera Dallas, two stories that don’t seem to go together, but through McPherson’s crafting, become the two pillars on which his portrait of the city is built. The next essay, about Gettysburg, where McPherson has a family home, is about the power and fuzziness of collective memories. He includes his own take on the “Leaving New York” essay by writing about the subway systems. The other essays are about the nuclear test sites in New Mexico, the oil booms of North Dakota, the World’s Fair in St. Louis (where the author currently resides), and the paranoia of Los Angeles residence.
Though the essays are all braided and personal in some way, the level of the personal and the connection to the location vary. In the essays about Dallas, New York, and St. Louis, the fact that the author had lived there adds a level of interest, and is perhaps a driving force in the essay, but not the central theme. For the New Mexico and North Dakota essays, McPherson is a journalist walking the land, talking to experts, digging—in both essays, literally and figuratively—for information about the human and natural geography. In these essays, his style and approach are very much New Journalism, following masterfully in Joan Didion’s footsteps.
The essay that stands out for me, because in it we see the most of McPherson as a person, not just a researcher, is “Lost and Found,” where he discusses his family home in Gettysburg. Even the historical accounts of the hallowed ground are largely filtered through family history—his ancestor was a national politician in Lincoln’s time—and many of the glimpses of that important place come not from archives, internet research, or experts—as is the case in the other essays—but through the things McPherson finds in drawers, on shelves, and hanging on walls in what sounds like a very small house filled with the detritus of the ages. The result is an essay as sentimental as they get, ending with his daughter’s baptism in the same church in Gettysburg where all other family generations have been christened.
Even in the more distanced essays, McPherson’s style is enough to draw me in, keep me interested, and keep me learning new facts. The History of the Future is filled with surprising information, masterfully puzzled together.