Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"What the devil are they doing"? English Authors Writing about America

Randall Stephens 

Oh, my autumn almanac
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac.

I like my football on a Saturday,
Roast beef on Sundays, all right.
I go to Blackpool for my holidays,
Sit in the open sunlight.

- Ray Davies, The Kinks, "Autumn Almanac" (1967)

An American version, "Fall Almanac," just wouldn't have cut it.  Ray Davies has long been an observer of the differences--linguistic, cultural, and otherwise--of the American and English scenes.  Sure, The Kinks were as English as clotted cream, cricket, Yorkshire pudding, and bad weather.  But Ray and brother Dave spent quite a bit of time living or touring in both countries. 

I've spent my share of time in both countries, too. I live in Newcastle Upon Tyne. (Which, in itself, is almost like another country compared with the Kinks North London stomping ground.)  So I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of Ray Davies new book Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story (October, 2013).  Here, so says the promo material, the famous mod rocker and 60s icon "tries to make sense of his long love-hate relationship with the country that both inspired and frustrated him." The book promises to take "us on a very personal road trip through his life and storied career as a rock star, and reveals what music, fame, and America really mean to him." 

These kinds of travelogues have long been bestsellers.  Authors of them have included helpings of criticism along with a dash of admiration.  Maybe the sheer number of these volumes has something to do with the cultural and political special relationship between the two nations, the shared language, or just a general curiosity.  Think of the Americans who write about Britain--humorist Bill Bryson or former ambassador Raymond Seitz.  Or the English who write about life in the U.S.--academic Terry Eagleton and, most obviously, Alistair Cooke.

This is a literary trail that winds all the way back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when many of those who lived in America were becoming more than just relocated English people. I'm most interested in the English who made their way to the colonies or the U.S., pen in hand,
The "British despot" beaten again, 1897.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
ready to comment on American bragging and tobacco chewing.  They asked: What accounted for the growing distance between the Mother Country and the New World? Was there such a thing as an American character?  Or, as G. K. Chesterton put it in his What I Saw in America (1922): "We say that the Americans are doing something heroic, or doing something insane, or doing it in an unworkable or unworthy fashion, instead of simply wondering what the devil they are doing" (7).  Many of us natives wonder the same thing. A great collection of these accounts--spanning the centuries--is Allan Nevins' America through British Eyes. (Published in 1948, it's now a difficult volume to come by).   

If you're endlessly fascinated by such romps through America's teeming cities, pig-choked streets, and highways and byways then check out these gems:

Douglas S. Robertson, ed., An Englishman in America in 1785 being the Diary of Joseph Hadfield (1933)

Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832)

Harriet Martineau, Society in America (1837)

Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (1842) 


John Benwell, An Englishman's Travels in America: His Observations of Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States (1853) 

Anthony Trollope, North America (1862)

William Archer, Through Afro-America: An English Reading of the Race Problem (1910)


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Is this a phenomenon with Americans? Do we know if there are other places that outsiders love to go and analyze? Do Americans do this to the British?

I just listened to a collection of students analyze Tocqueville's observations on the US. Perhaps the Anglo-American relationship is more fruitful for this sort of thing (shared language and all), but it does seem the US has been a land that others love to observe....

Randall said...

There are some interesting takes written by American travelers in England. I'd like to see a bibliography that included both books by Brits on America and the other way around. Could be useful to put together. I wonder what would count as the earliest?

I forgot one of the best, Ben Franklin's Autobiography, from pages 350 forward he describes his 1757 trip to London with his son.

hcr said...

Perfect timing! Was just yesterday searching for this very thing with a graduate student, and all I could come up with was Mrs. Trollope. Will pass this on.

Randall said...

I'd like to track down more of these books that were published in the 20th century, esp the postwar era.

hcr said...

Of course, these speak back to the question of American exceptionalism. I studied many of them in grad school as an American Studies person. But as that question fell out of fashion, so did the books. Just started a new project with Crevecoeur, and no one seems to know who he is anymore.

Randall said...

I still think there is a case to be made for American exceptionalism--neither positive or negative--when it comes to how the US compares to other western nations regarding religious affiliation/adherence. Tocqueville is a good source on that.