The big picture

The Americas: the history of a hemisphere

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 235p

One of the most formidable political explicators of our time is undoubtedly Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, if only because of his extraordinary gift for arrangement. He habitually deals in the most unmanageable of subjects - civilisation, world history, food - but manages to give them shape, pattern and apparent logic by ordering them within his own chosen disciplines.

I, on the other hand, am a graduate of the "sound and fury" school of history, in the faculty of chaos, and this makes it all the more instructive for me to observe Fernandez-Armesto's virtuoso marshalling of his materials to fit his art. This new book is far shorter than some of his works, dealing as it does only with the history of the American continents, but is no less fascinating in its techniques. It really does manage to give a kind of narrative conviction to the whole story of the western hemisphere, prehistory to 2001, from blank on the map to world dominance.

I read every word of it with admiration, but in the end I thought the least interesting part of it was its declared purpose - "to trace a common history that embraces all the Americas". Since colonial times, this has boiled down essentially to a relationship between gringo and Latino, with the indigenous peoples of the hemisphere either absorbed into one or the other, or sidelined, and with the gringos of the north in the ascendant. Fernandez-Armesto makes the suggestion that the balance may presently shift, as economic and technological circumstance enables the volatile republics of the south to catch up with the stable giants of the north, but the general picture he paints is more or less what we might have imagined for ourselves.

His theses are never dull; indeed, they are sometimes surprising and often memorably expressed - for example, he dismisses the old theory that the very first Americans were a go-getting nomadic race of hunters as "a dry run for manifest destiny". He tells us that the influence of the south upon the north has been as powerful as the other way round. He says Anglo-American democracy has been no more individualistic than Hispanic-American hierarchy - and, indeed, that individualism is a delusion in a modern United States whose society is "cloyingly gregarious, profoundly communitarian, boringly conformist" and "glutinously embedded" in its innumerable communities.

He draws parallels between the 18th-century Creoles of the Spanish-American colonies and the revolutionaries of Bri-tish America - Crevecoeur's "new race of men". He suggests that the influence of different kinds of American colonists upon each other was stronger than the influences of their respective European founders (and while he seems to think Canada the best country in the modern Americas, he forebears to surmise that this might have something to do with its heritage of Britishness).

But much more striking is the baroque profusion of ancillary detail, sometimes declining into ephemera, with which he ornaments this Bauhaus sort of construction. What fun he has with the incidental, when he is not immersed in the monumental. Did you realise the influence the Huron people had on the French revolution? Did you know that you could not hear all the Beethoven symphonies in Chile until 1913? Did it ever occur to you that one of the biggest environmental changes in the history of humanity was the taming of the American prairie, or that the British colonies of pre-revolutionary America were among the richest societies per capita on earth?

Gold and silver peanuts in the art of the Moche civilisation; macaw-feather warehouses among the Aztecs; plans for a Brazilian overseas empire; an independent black slave kingdom, up-country from Pernambuco, with black slaves of its own - these are the sort of asides and allusions that give this book life far beyond the grave of academe. And its vocabulary, too, displays an almost comical profligacy of unfamiliar words, idioms and usages: equipollant, catechesis, exceptionalism, chiliastic, mimesis, advocations, biota - these are only a few of them, and although their use may sometimes seem like showing off, I think they are a genuine expression of this scholar's irrepressibly learned exuberance.

The big picture is his purpose here. It is far easier to illustrate his gifts by the profligacy of his research than by the reiteration of his themes. Who really needs a history of the entire American hemisphere in 230 pages anyway? It seems to me that, in this book, Fernandez-Armesto transcends his own intentions, and has given us an anthology of enthral-ling historical observations when he (or perhaps his publishers) had in mind a declaration of heavyweight historical conclusions. But then I am a "sound and fury" person, and for me, historical conclusions signify nothing.

Jan Morris's A Writer's World: travels 1950-2000 is published by Faber & Faber in September

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2003 issue of the New Statesman, How fat became a political issue