Posts Tagged ‘American Dream’

Frank Thistlethwaite: The Great Experiment

January 27, 2021

     When I studied history at O-Level half a century ago, one of the two papers was an option on American History, which I found fascinating; I bought this book then, and have finally got round to reading it.

One of the things I have long struggled to understand is the US as a country, and the American people and the way they look at the world, because their notions are so different from ours here in Europe. I have long been horrified at many of the things that country has done (not that the UK did any better in its day, I must add in the interests of fairness) and have not met that many Americans during my life, and those that I did meet and get to know all seemed so different from the stereotypical impressions and opinions I had built up of the country. And the rank insanity of the last four years in the USA (again, closely aped by ourselves) has made me renew my efforts to understand.

In the end I find much truth in the old adage that we are two nations separated by a common language: we expect to see similarities because we can communicate relatively easily, whereas the differences are huge. And I’m struck by how the craziest ideas that come out of the USA are adopted first in English-speaking countries, and only much later by the French or the Germans, for example.

What did this book clarify for me? First of all, that the sheer size of the American continent drove so many things, and at such an incredibly hectic pace: the settlement of the entire space, the building of transport systems and industries which allowed such economies of scale that the old continent must inevitably come under the sway of the new world, economically and then politically… and that this still continues today. It seems that companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft could only develop and grow to such a size that they can dictate to the entire world, in a nation of such size. And the unbridled economic power that the looser-knit central government had to allow has gone on to influence and shape how we in Europe look at and do things, in our separate countries. It is clear that very similar development can and is happening in China, which has the size, as well as four times the population.

As a European, I find the unbridled individualism of the USA disturbing and unhealthy, along with the idea that the state should give way to business, that government is not in any sense the collective will of a unified people (not that this is exactly the case over here either, but at least it’s a notion that a sizeable proportion of the population espouse) and so each individual, no matter their circumstances, must sink or swim: to me, from this perspective, this is not a sensible way of looking at people or the world; it’s not a Christian way of looking at the world either, for all the vapouring of American fundamentalists.

Finally, the thing that shocked me most about this book – which was written in the 1950s – no sense or recognition at all that there were millions of people with a civilisation of their own already on this continent when the dissatisfied Europeans began to arrive, or that they were exterminated…

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March

July 22, 2013

41n4v7CMz9L._AA160_I failed to tackle Bellow at university, while reading for my master’s degree. Finally, I caught up with him, and I don’t really think it was worth it…

In the introduction to my edition, Martin Amis decides that this is ‘the great American novel’. Sorry, but in my mind that title goes to Heller‘s Catch 22. So, what, didn’t I like about this novel? I persevered because I wanted to see how it ended up, but it just petered out, maybe resolved because the eponymous character had finally got married. But I wasn’t convinced by that. It’s a bildungsroman, but I couldn’t really work up any interest in any of the characters for large parts of the story. There were a lot of dreadful, rich people in Gatsby mode who went for each other like rats in a sack, leading existences totally divorced from reality on Planet Earth, and which rather furthered my picture of the United States being a strange place inhabited by stranger people. I think the idea of the American Dream is an interesting one to explore, rather hackneyed now, though perhaps less so in the 1950s, so I can’t blame Bellow for that. But the idea that anyone can, through their own efforts, rise to the top of the pile, is responsible for some of the worst excesses in our world; it hardly furthers human happiness, except fleetingly for a few, perhaps.

Bellow’s use of English (American?) was interesting at times; some of his description, especially when accretive, verged on the poetic, and I liked it a lot. But I was overpowered by the pancake erudition, dozens of references to all sorts of classical and historical and political figures and ideas spread out before the reader in a very show-off fashion, and, to my mind, totally unconvincing in the mouth of the first-person narrator.

I’m glad I read the novel, but I won’t be spending any more eyeball-time on him.

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