Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America
“. . . stereotype . . . of the fusty Oxbridge academic harrumphing at a changing world that does not correlate with his own. . . . not particularly funny.”
The British spend a considerable amount of time with the Americans. Every evening we consider inviting them into our homes. And they are there, waiting for us. We pour out our piping hot cups of tea, peel open a packet of Digestive biscuits, and settle down to watch an episode of Friends, or Family Guy, or New Girl, or How I Met Your Mother.
The Americans with whom we share our evening may be actors broadcast onto our TV screens, but we know them intimately. We understand their little ways, their mannerisms, their quirks. On the odd occasion, we may even attempt to mimic them.
Any Brit who has not had the pleasure of coming into contact with a real life, flesh and blood, star-spangled American, still has a basic grasp of “Americanness.” To them, Americans are like overseas relatives with whom they have video chatted but never met: distant, yet somehow familiar—regardless of whether we like them or not.
And it is for this particular reason that we do not titter when we hear an American refer to the pavement as the sidewalk, the tap as the faucet, or the toilet as the restroom. It is not uncomfortable, amusing, or indeed alien because we hear the American tongue on a daily basis in our homes.
It is peculiar then, that the distinguished British professor Terry Eagleton has chosen to write a book that treats America and Americans as an oddity.
Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America opens with an apologia of sorts: “Since I shall have some critical things to say about Americans in this book, as well as some admiring ones, I had better begin by pointing out that some of my best friends are Americans. My wife and three of my children, for example.”
Here Professor Eagleton apes the barroom bigot, who sways on his barstool loudly justifying his racism on account of the fact that “some of his friends are black.” He does so with lashings and lashings of irony, of course, which, he feels, makes the harsh dressing down of America that follows perfectly acceptable.
The author bolsters his argument by justifying the usefulness of stereotypes: “like medical textbooks or prayers for the dying, they focus on what we have in common.” We are asked to receive many of the generalizations that the author makes about the Americans as tongue in cheek, although he does draw on what he believes to be predictable social patterns.
In essence, the apology process places the writer in a position whereby he can take great unwieldy swipes at a nation and pass them off in playful jest.
And yet Professor Eagleton’s cruelty is on occasion repugnant. When discussing American expressions he states: “Steve Job’s last words were ‘Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!’ Perhaps he did not do quite so much for human communication as his fans imagine.” A pitifully cheap shot.
A good portion of the book is sniggeringly anecdotal: “Everyone knows that when a British schoolteacher asks his boys to get out their rubbers, he is inviting them to have their erasers ready to hand, not about to give them a lesson in contraception.” Oh do they, Professor Eagleton? Hahaha! It is surprising that the author chose not to throw in a quip about fannies for good measure.
It is neither interesting, informative, or amusing to readers over 12 years of age that Americans on occasion have a word choice that differs from that of the British. Or that they “mispronounce” the name “Edinburgh” to rhyme with “Marlboro.”
Word choice brings out a particular brand of academic snootiness in the author. He abhors, for example, the American use of the word “kids” in reference to children. It is, for him, an “ugly, demeaning monosyllable,” and he is surprised that “a nation so scrupulous about political correctness should be content to regard its offspring as small smelly goats.”
He holds the word aloft between thumb and index finger, as though no rightminded Englishman would dare to touch it. And yet we do. From Bolton to Berkshire, we drop what we’re doing, grab the car keys, and go and pick up the kids from school. To many of us, the word is not odd nor infuriating.
In doing so, the author serves to perpetuate one stereotype alone: that of the fusty Oxbridge academic harrumphing at a changing world that does not correlate with his own.
Of course, a section of the book is devoted to the American struggle with irony. Irony being the author’s weapon of choice, he infers that many readers from across the pond will simply misinterpret his entire thesis.
“For a puritan civilization, irony is too close to lying for comfort,” declares the author. The American suspicion of irony has, for Professor Eagleton, bred a “plain and forthright” use of language to the detriment of the nation’s literature: “The United States is one of the few places in which stylelessness has become a style, cultivated with all the passion and precision of a Woolf or a Joyce.”
Other aspects of America that come under attack range from the tenor of the American voice in public to its interpretation of democracy.
Professor Eagleton makes a few complimentary gestures toward America’s expressiveness, its value of spontaneity and honesty; however, this short measure of syrup does little to mask the vitriolic burn.
He ends with a series of Swiftian “modest proposals.” These proposals range from the silly—Americans should learn to use a teapot, to the sweeping—“they should try to be less moral, idealistic, earnest and high minded.”
Even if we are able to take all of this in jest, we must ask ourselves: What is the point of this book? It is not particularly funny. Nor does it tell us a great deal about street level America. It is a thought provoking exercise in examining stereotypes, and it is an intentionally provocative flourish of rhetoric. But in essence it reads like a book from a bygone age, a treatise on how we differ from the exotic inhabitants of a faraway territory.
Professor Eagleton would perhaps find this reading laughable, an oversight of the ironic tone in which the book was intentionally written. And yet it is inescapable that Across the Pond is a book that needlessly drives a wedge between America and Britain, two nations that share an understanding and daily familiarity the author fails to chart.