14 October, 2013Issue 23.1North AmericaTravel

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Everyone Loves a Good Stereotype

Liz Sawyer

EagletonTerry Eagleton
Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013
£9.95
178 pages
ISBN 978-0393347647

..

With its conversational style and vivid vignettes, Terry Eagleton’s most recent book bounces along in a thoroughly readable and engaging way. His trademark tongue-in-cheek humour, dry comparisons and impossible exaggerations resemble the entertaining wit of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart—for whom there is no place in the sincere, puritanical America that Eagleton describes.

Across the Pond has not been well received by the critics. Emily Wilson, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, calls it a “meandering series of quasi-comic musings”, accusing Eagleton of peddling “the usual cliché.” On the other side of that pond, Dwight Garner of the New York Times laments “how hoary its range of reference mostly is.” Hoary indeed: Eagleton draws most of his insights into the American character from Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, and Henry James (a Frenchman, a Brit, and an expat) with the occasional brief reference to Thoreau or Emerson. Perhaps Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Significance of the Frontier in American History or W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk were a little bit too modern (or too American) to make the cut; but they highlight a cavernous blind spot of the book towards history, geography, and race that emerges in his caricature of the modern nation.

On the other hand, this book should be judged on its own terms. Its subtitle is An Englishman’s View of America and not An Englishman’s View of the United States of America. These two things must not be confused. The “United States” is a recent conglomeration of political units, each with its own separate history, identity, and governmental structures. The United States as a cultural entity would be better compared with the European Union than with any single one of the EU’s member states. There are as many cultural differences between a New Yorker and a Texan as there are between a Glaswegian bus driver and a Spanish olive farmer. The reason many Americans don’t have passports is that they can travel widely around and within America, seeing as varied a landscape and almost as broad a variety of cultures as they might if they holidayed in Beijing or Delhi (where they would still be confronted with McDonalds or KFC, in any case).

“America”, on the other hand, is not a place but an idea—or better still, an ideal. The patriotic song is called “America the Beautiful”, not “The United States the Beautiful”. America is the ideal described by the Declaration of Independence, by James Truslow Adams, and evoked in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy. There is a world of difference between this ideal of “America” and the reality of “the United States of America”, as any American knows. What Eagleton aims for is a Bryson-esque critique of this ideal of “America” by discussing of a handful of stereotypes about people who live in the United States. Unfortunately, these stereotypes fall a long way short of illuminating that ideal.

His observations might have been insightful about the notion of “America” had he selected some more thought-provoking examples. If you want to understand “America” and American values, read any of the works or authors above; or, if pressed for time, L. Robert Kohls’s “The Values Americans Live By” is a succinct and direct treatise. An eight-page pamphlet designed to help visiting foreigners understand and get by in the United States, it demonstrates through its very purpose and style of presentation the 13 American values Kohls identifies: Time and its Control (No. 3), Equality/Egalitarianism (No. 4), Self-Help Concept (No. 6), Future Orientation (No. 8), Work/Action Orientation (No. 9), Informality (No. 10), Directness, Openness, and Honesty (No. 11), and Practicality and Efficiency (No. 12). Many of the traits that Eagleton discusses at length are addressed by examples in this concise document. Kohls noted under Value No. 1 (Personal Control over the Environment) that “Americans have literally gone to the moon, because they refused to accept earthly limitations”, whereas Eagleton muses on how, in the United States, “Failure is not an option, as the typically American word ‘challenge’ suggests. Being buried up to your neck in excrement while famished crows peck at your eyeballs is not a problem but a challenge.” (Shades of Jon Stewart again.) Eagleton concludes of Americans that “learning to mock themselves would be an incomparably greater achievement than landing on Mars.” Certainly American and British humour differ, but a country that has produced American Dad, Family Guy (Eagleton only rates the early episodes of The Simpsons), and Tina Fey clearly knows how to maintain a healthy degree of self-mockery, alongside overstated ambitions such as putting a man on the moon. One might have thought that a perusal of American cars’ bumper stickers would yield some profound insights: Eagleton reads the emblazoning of “My Child is on the Honor Roll” only as a very “American” thing to do, without asking why it is American—the language, the parent’s pride, or the just blatant promotion of it? (After all, the term “Honor Roll” does not even exist in the UK). The special relationship with the motor car, which results in such a stunning variety of bumper stickers across the nation, is a telling and deeply American trait: for Americans, their cars express many of the values Kohls identifies—which is why they sing about them so much.

Just as Kohls’s article betrays his own American identity, Eagleton’s comparisons of the United States with Britain and Ireland are highly revealing about his own relationship with these cultures. Some of his comments on British behaviours are surprising, and seem as simplistic and uncritical as his American examples. For instance, he identifies some words as distinctively “American”, such as “family”:

The term is more central to American discourse than it is elsewhere. It is used much more often in advertisements and political speeches than it is in Europe. A British politician would not typically refer to “Britain’s families” whereas the phrase “America’s families” crops up regularly in the United States.

Maybe not “Britain’s families” exactly, but anybody who has read a newspaper or seen the news in the past three years could not have missed David Cameron’s persistent rhetoric around “hard-working families”. One single phrase can, of course, rapidly evolve in meaning and usage (so that Eagleton’s book seems out-of-date almost as soon as it is published), but social behaviours change more slowly. Eagleton describes the long-analysed British habit of discussing and grumbling about the weather, a social device found across all classes and regions that provides an opportunity for people to work out whether they are actually going to bother having a conversation with their interlocutor. But has he not observed how, in an age when most people work indoors, commute by car or train rather than walking, and live in centrally heated houses, this behavioural trait is now very often replaced by discussion of the transport network? Many are the conversations at a work social, a weekend barbecue, or even a not-very-promising date that begin with long discussions about the M6 Toll or getting stuck at Bristol Temple Meads.

We might chuckle inwardly at Eagleton’s wry (although not very original) observation that, “To be sure after two minutes conversation that your companion attended an expensive private school is almost within the capacity of a British six-year-old.” But this humour evaporates when Eagleton contrasts this with American society:

As far as rank goes, one might add that though the United States today is a grotesquely unequal society, its everyday culture is a good deal more egalitarian than that of Britain. There is a genuine classlessness about America’s behaviour, if not about its property structure. Like American frankness, pleasantness and sociability, this oils the wheels of social intercourse. By contrast, it is almost impossible for two Britons to meet without each of them instantly picking up the class signals emitted by the other.

Here any potential comedic value catches in the throat: in this post-Trayvon Martin era this comment cannot be taken seriously. British snobbery and even UKIP’s “loons” do not compare with the racial prejudice that permeates the United States—this is one of the most obvious ways in which it has failed to live up to the ideal of “America”, and one that Eagleton’s somewhat limited series of examples never addresses. In sum, Eagleton’s book is the equivalent of the conversation you have with the person next to you while you’re waiting to get served in a pub (yes, even in England, strangers do talk to each other in this way)—the odd attempt at charm, perhaps a witty remark, but an essentially mechanical routine consisting merely of cliché and stereotype, a filling-in of time rather than a genuine exchange of ideas.

Liz Sawyer is a DPhil student in Classical Languages and Literature at Trinity College, Oxford.