Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America by Terry Eagleton

Marxist intellectual is no Bill Bryson, Peter J. Smith discovers

June 27, 2013

There’s a good reason I’ve not ditched my 30-year-old, pre-wheels Samsonite suitcase, now held together by two rolls of duct tape. I once flew from Miami to the Florida Keys for a little R&R without realising it was spring break. The young woman next to me broke the news that there would be no accommodation to be had and I’d be better off returning to Miami. Then, eyeing my case, she invited me to share her beachfront luxury apartment for the weekend. Over G&Ts in the hot tub, I put it to her that such reckless generosity simply would not occur in the UK. How could she be so trusting? “Oh,” she shot back, “your beat-up ol’ suitcase means you’re harmless.” It’s a principle that could be applied to all my most cherished possessions: my father’s hand-me-down coat is more or less held together with dirt.

This true story might be the starting place for extrapolating the differences between customs and attitudes on either side of the Atlantic. We might assert that Americans are more generous, trusting, optimistic; the English more suspicious, reserved and selfish. But equally we might merely conclude that I was a scruff who “lucked out” and she was an altruistic soul. The concatenation between micro- and macrocosmic is not one we should rely upon. National stereotypes emerge incidentally from the personal and anecdotal, as they do for Bill Bryson, Jonathan Raban or David Sedaris. That’s why these writers are sly, seemingly innocuous and so readable. No great claims are being made; no conclusions are unaccompanied by wheelbarrows of salt. Observational comedy is entertainment, not proclamation. Terry Eagleton seems unaware of this.

Observational comedy is entertainment, not proclamation. Terry Eagleton seems unaware of this

In Across the Pond, Eagleton pontificates at the level of the general, the universal, the stereotypical and, it must be said, the lazily xenophobic. Lest we bridle too early, he tells us at the outset that his wife is American. But then Nigel Farage insists that he loves foreigners because he is married to a German: there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the race.

“A lot of young American men walk with a slightly hunched, ape-like, shambling gait”; “The old men wear their trousers too high and have bleached, scaly, lizard-like skin”; American tourists are “usually the most tastelessly dressed of overseas visitors”. Does Eagleton expect us to entertain remarks like these without outrage? Elsewhere his attempts to be parodic transform his phrenological protestations into the surreal: “In general, the squarer the chin, the more likely you are to oppose tax increases.” And what is the point of this sentence? “It is true that Jesus is believed to have risen from the dead, which is more than can be said for Michael Jackson.”

Yes, of course we laugh when we overhear, as did I in a Chicago lift (elevator), two female Americans complaining about their “aching fannies”, but these linguistic variations are slender evidence for the seismic cultural differences Eagleton claims they articulate: “The British say ‘It must be,’ whereas Americans tend to say ‘It has to be.’” Is that even true? And when Eagleton talks about the ubiquity of “the American Dream, with its faith that anyone can scramble to the top”, one wonders how a professor of literature could have overlooked the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. Ditto his declaration: “Victorian novels were not really allowed to end badly” – try telling that to Jude, Michael Henchard and Tess.

Eagleton’s 2001 memoir The Gatekeeper is deft, intelligent, moving and humorously incisive. Across the Pond, slight in both senses, is unworthy of him.

Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America

By Terry Eagleton
W. W. Norton, 192pp, £16.99 and £9.99
ISBN 9780393088984 and 3347647
Published 18 June 2013

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