Ever felt like a maiden aunt to a brash US youngster?

April 29, 2005

Brits used to think of the US as a virgin land filled with opportunity, but that's all changed, Harriet Swain finds

While British views of America have become particularly loaded in the past few years, they have never exactly been neutral. The way Brits think of the Anglophone country across the water has ranged from an offshoot of Britain to Britain as an offshoot of the US, with many twists and turns along the way. Some of these vacillations will be discussed at a one-day conference, America in the British Imagination , held by the department of comparative American studies at Warwick University this month.

Tim Lockley, lecturer in history and American studies, and one of the conference organisers, says the aim is to cover relations between the US and UK, from the first encounter of colonists with the flora and fauna of the new world to 21st-century links in popular culture - including a look at how the band Radiohead critiques America's global socioeconomic influence.

The meeting will be interdisciplinary - with papers on historical and political interactions, as well as on literary and musical links - although the emphasis is on the cultural connections between the two countries.

"It is a topic that has contemporary resonance because people are thinking about America and its position in the world, but the conference shows they have been thinking about it for 400 years," Lockley says.

The organisers have been careful to include a mix of experience, using a grant from the US embassy to bring over a handful of young American scholars.

These include Troy Bickham, assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. He looks at how encounters with North American Indians affected Britain's imperial culture. He argues that the British became interested in Amerindians as important players in the struggle for empire, through museum displays of their weapons, money and clothing, and magazines showing maps of their territories. He suggests that Scottish Enlightenment histories, which linked conceptions of primitive man with popular images of Amerindians, gave intellectual support to perceptions that they were physically and mentally inferior to Europeans.

Brook Miller, assistant professor of English at the University of Montevallo, Alabama, will discuss similarly disparaging British views of Americans in the late Victorian period. His paper will look at the way cultural critics such as Matthew Arnold and Beatrice Webb despised US urban crowds as a modern incarnation of Thomas Hobbes' vision of primitive man.

Miller argues that these writers attribute America's flaws to the struggle for wealth and the absence of a cultural tradition. This, he says, implicitly invokes the redemptive authority of English culture.

Growing British insecurity about America will be reflected in a paper by Allen McLaurin, acting dean of the faculty of media and humanities at Lincoln University. He will discuss how the US was viewed in 1940s UK writing, arguing that the dominant view of Americanisation is not the only way the country was perceived in this period.

He says that the 1940s was a particularly important time for US-UK relations because many British people were coming into contact with Americans for the first time through the armed forces and because the way the two peoples saw each other was highly significant politically.

From studying literary magazines of the period, such as Penguin New Writing , he has found that the negative views of Americanisation expressed by writers such as Richard Hoggart and George Orwell, which influenced views well into the late 20th century, may have obscured more varied opinions about the US.

"I'm not saying I have a theory that will displace Americanisation," he says. "It's just that imagining America is a wider issue than simply Americanisation."

Tammy Grimshaw, an American postdoctoral teaching assistant at Leeds University, will look at a more modern literary reading in the work of Kingsley Amis. Amis could be seen as anti-American, she says, if it were not for the fact that he was a comic writer. "The first time I read one of his books, I did bristle a bit," she admits. "But once you get into it, it is highly comic." She suggests - slightly tongue in cheek - that those British interviewers who see him as anti-American could have a problem with irony.

Lockley says one of the interesting themes that emerges in looking at relations between Britain and America long term is how the UK takes to seeing its power undermined over the centuries by a new nation.

"British perception of America starts off seeing it as virgin land, a fantastic opportunity," says Lockley. But by the end of the 20th century, Britain has become "like a maiden aunt and America a brash young nation".

America in the British Imagination , Warwick University on May 6.

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