A curious facet of our American preoccupation with the future is a landscape littered with remnants of utopian endeavors that grew stale, the bricks and mortar or timber and clapboard left to molder where they stood when salvation assumed a new form.
Lionel Trilling was appalled by these relics: “Nothing in America,” he said, “is quite so dead as an American future of a few decades back.” I, on the contrary, am drawn to the millennialist wreckage, to Shaker villages and Concord Hillside Chapels, to Walden Ponds and odd little villages in Vermont with their derelict churches, to clocks on empty watchtowers in moribund industrial towns, the hands stopped at the Roman-numeraled moment when a dream died.
Europe has nothing quite like it. In the organic cultures of the Old World, the present is not, as it is here, merely an improvised staging ground on the road to the future: Over there they arrange, or used to arrange, their presents with a good deal of art to endure into the future. The temple of Minerva at Assisi is not pulled down with changing fashions in eschatology; new life is breathed into the old forms, and it becomes Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a baroque church. We Americans, nervous, aspiring, and perpetually in a hurry, have no such patience with antiquity: We simply discard the relics of outdated visions or build around them. We are, in Scott Fitzgerald’s words, too busy chasing the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” to undertake the work of harmonizing past with current fixations.
Which is not bad. Had we been less fierce in our utopianism, we could never have created the republic we now have. Never before, probably, have so many people been so free and so prosperous as they are in America today. The vision of the city on the hill, the dream of the new birth of freedom, demands the sacrifice of the present as the Old World understands it, an accommodation of old and new. As psychic progeny of Puritans (who sought a new Jerusalem in the American wilderness) and patriots (who dreamt of a republic of virtue, or “Christian Sparta,” in the Thirteen Colonies), we’re zealots of futurity, chasers of a brighter sun that continually eludes us.
The temple of Minerva in Assisi is a living thing: Plimoth Plantation and the mills of Lowell (consecrated to an industrial millennium) are tourist attractions, fenced off from the living nation beyond. Walmart and even Amazon itself will eventually become curiosities. It is the glory and the burden of an American that he never can assimilate his obsolescent futures to his current idea of what the new heaven and new earth will look like. If he did, he wouldn’t be an American.
This article appears as “Obsolescent Futures” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.