Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
2 September 2020

Narrating 400 years of American history

A new series of monologues, broadcast on Radio 4 to mark the Mayflower 2020 anniversary, understands the sheer scale of the country.

By Antonia Quirke

Before the plague and the fall, if you sought a commission from BBC radio you wrote a short pitch, followed by an expansive and unlikely one detailing lists of potential contributors you might force to take part. At which point things would go cavernously silent. Then at the exact moment you realised how relieved you were that it had never happened an email would land saying: RECORD.

Don’t knock it. Some of the best radio in the history of the universe has been made this way. It’s a system. Since March, so much has changed. Long-imagined essays and features completely re-pivoted to respond to the “new normal”. How much the subjects and sentences of this series of monologues (4 September, 9pm) written and delivered by Joe Queenan, about 400 years of America (broadcast to mark the Mayflower 2020 anniversary) must have been pruned and scrapped to embrace not just the physical limitations of lockdown recording, but the (growing, daily) realisation that the US probably hasn’t been this strained since 1861. How well Queenan does it.

With his cunning radio voice – sardonically Philadelphian, hard and then tender – he talks about, say, Vitus Bering suicidally crossing the Bering Strait, or the forced relocation of native Americans, with the requisite despair (“America is all about how much you can get away with”), but also with awe. The scale of things. Snakes, alligators, tribes on tribes, mercury so cold it congealed in a thermometer, 47 per cent of the Louisiana population enslaved in the days before the Civil War. The mountains, the genocide, the money, the delusions. Queenan says he prefers Longfellow to Whitman. You hear jags of that storytelling hurtle in his writing. (“Back then, America elected presidents who were interested in flora and fauna and minerals and astronomy and anthropology and everything…”)

But, crucially, there is in Queenan’s tone the air that our current “pessimism” about the US could be proven wrong. Because it’s a babyish overestimation (a fantasy, even) to suggest things “used to be better”. This is us, Queenan seems to be saying. Human beings. And we’re no stupider or less stupid than we always have been.

From the Mayflower to the Moon
BBC Radio 4

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy