One Englishman’s America

ILOVE AMERICA. I wonder how many Englishmen can say that? Most of us know it too little to feel strong emotion one way or the other. New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Florida holiday resorts—that is the America of most English people. My America is larger altogether. I have visited, for reasons that will emerge, thirty-two of the fifty states and most of Canada as well, and I have been making those visits for nearly forty years. In an idle moment I counted up not long ago the number of U.S. Immigration Service entry stamps in my passports and found nearly fifty. “Boston,” the first one says, in a passport from which a schoolboy face stares back at me; underneath, in the space for “occupation,” I see that I have struck out “schoolboy” and written “undergraduate,” perhaps in preparation for my first transatlantic crossing.

Then there is a gap of exactly twenty years, 1957 to 1977. After that the stamps come thick and fast. The face gets older, the travels spread wider—Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas–Fort Worth, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Boston again several times, Denver, Seattle, Honolulu. There are Canadian stamps, too: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver. Had my passport been stamped every time I touched down at an America airport, what a kaleidoscope there would be: Charlotte, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Montgomery, Alabama; Colorado Springs; New Orleans; Manchester, New Hampshire; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; as well as Quebec; Kingston, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta; Victoria, British Columbia; and a host of small places I can scarcely decipher from the pages of my travel diaries. Some places linger in the mind because of the extreme precariousness of the flights I made to them. I remember a seaplane in Canada where the co-pilot’s role seemed to be that of helping the pilot hold the engine at full power as we headed down-harbour, their hands clasped white-knuckled one over another on the throttles; I remember a night take-off somewhere on the Great Plains where a James Cagney lookalike simultaneously worked the joystick, carried on a conversation with the passenger next to him, and wiped the inside of the windscreen with a handful of cotton waste. Most of those small places have blurred into one: the strip of concrete surrounded by a prairie of brown grass, the concrete terminal, sometimes unconvincingly advertising itself, after the placename, as an “International Airport,” the porterless luggage collection point, the photographs of local scenic attractions, the advertisements for local commerce, the Avis and Hertz car rental representatives staring speechlessly into space, the welcome sign from the Lions or Kiwanis or Rotary, the breathless hush of the encompassing car park, the hint of habitation somewhere beyond the horizon.

No matter; I like American airports. Their sameness is reassuring. It is a guarantee that just a car-drive away there will be small white single-storey houses, neat streets, chainlink fences, signs at corners signalling Sunday service, white plastic letters behind glass for Church of Christ, gold-leaf Gothic for Episcopalian, and then, as the town centre nears, grass verges, spaced elms, Victorian villas in gardened lots, verandas, parked cars, lonely bus stops, doctors’ signboards, funeral chapels, and the first outcrops of shopping and eating. “Liquor” in neon lighting, sometimes with an arrow that flashes on and off, is familiar; so, too, is the Chinese Garden with parking space for diners, the hamburger place, White Castle if we are in the Midwest, the cocktail lounge with smoked-glass windows, the gun shop, the sports-goods store, the magazine and book outlet, insurance and travel and savings and loan offices, City Hall. Small American airports, like small French railway stations, are the prelude to something fixed and unchanging. English visitors look forward, when they detrain from a branch line in the French provinces, to finding white tablecloths and iron chairs at the edge of the town square, the scent of limes as they take their aperitifs, tomato salads, and white Burgundy with their omelettes fines herbes. I look forward, when I deplane in Tennessee or Montana or Ohio, to something quite immaterial: a sense of timelessness, an absolute similarity of architecture and street plan, a pervading calm, a curious slowness—Europe, not America, is the continent of fast driving and pedestrian bustle—the certainty of identical food and service and accommodation and friendliness and uncuriosity.

I like that. Uncuriosity is one of the reasons I love America. In France, though I speak French well, my accent brands me as an Englishman. In England my accent brands me as—what? Other Englishmen would tell: accent is the first characteristic by which English people make judgements about each other. In America my accent means nothing at all. When I first visited the country in the 1950s and foreigners were exotic, my voice excited interest. Now, when America is almost as cosmopolitan as anywhere else, it passes without comment. Nothing about me causes comment. I am one of the crowd, simply another atom in a great, shifting, restless, busy, amiable, almost undifferentiated multitude that is the American people. There are other large countries on earth, Russia, China, India. Only the Americans have succeeded in creating a society of complete cultural uniformity, in which one can travel for a thousand, two thousand miles in the sureness that at the end of the journey one will emerge from aeroplane or bus or motor car to hear a common language being spoken in an identical form, to find people living in identical houses, to see the crowd dressed in identical clothes, to walk streets built in identical style, to find towns served by identical schools, businesses, public utilities. To an outsider the uniformity of America is profoundly relaxing. America makes no demands on one, imposes no expectations, asks no questions. It accepts the foreigner as it accepts the native traveller, someone without origins or fixed abode or past or future, a being of the here-and-now, just passing through. I love passing through. A curious, delectable, weightless, free-floating trance possesses me when I stop for a moment in places like Hardin, Montana, or Half Moon Bay, California, or Springfield, Ohio, born of the knowledge that no one will ask me who I am or what I do or whence I come or whither I am going.

Where am I going? Usually to the next small airport, to park my rented car amid the acres of shimmering metal, to check my bags with Ozark or Comair or Skywest or Precision, to thank the dentured desk clerk for the return of my ticket, to emplane through Gate 1, to take seat 22F, to listen to the Walter Matthau voice of the pilot confide intelligence about height and speed, to hear the door close, to watch the brown grass accelerate past the porthole, to see the water tower and high-school football field and insurance skyscraper and freight yards and highway interchanges of Harrisburg or Madison or Tallahassee or Buffalo or Wilmington dropping away behind me, to detect the aircraft reaching cruising height in the great, continental, horizonless, cloud-flecked blue, and then to sink into the dream of American domestic aerial travel. Dreamlike it is. For hour after hour, the hypnotising, unchanging note of the engines, space passes below one, space that seems to move no faster than the ocean on a transatlantic flight, space that seems to stretch for ever, space before, behind, to right, to left, space in the abstract, space without beginning or end. Sunlight—it is always sunny on American domestic flights—illuminates contours and rivers and lakes and roads and geometrical field divisions and forest and patches of woodland and tiny towns and larger cities and yellow and brown and green and sometimes the grey of passing cloud shadows and sometimes the glint of water but there is no sense of place in the slowly approaching, slowly receding kaleidoscope of landscape. Two hundred and sixty million people have their habitations somewhere below but for me, as I gaze mesmerized out of the window, through the angle that the glittering silver wing makes with the fuselage, it is as if I am a cosmonaut circuiting an orbit through the atmosphere of a fertile, watered, welcoming but uninhabited and unexplored planet.

Then the Walter Matthau voice announces that we are approaching Denver or Atlanta or Cincinnati or Dallas—Fort Worth, with connections to Shreveport and Little Rock and Oklahoma City and Austin and Lubbock and Amarillo, and that the agent at the desk will confirm reservations and that we are to fasten seat belts, and the undercarriage clunks down and the patches of green become little copses and spinneys and the grey-painted water tower appears at the airport edge and the brown grass flashes past the window and the aircraft brakes at the end of the concrete strip and the speechless businessman in 22E collects his sample case from the overhead locker and the aircraft sits decompressing with sharp metallic clicks outside the concrete terminal. Soon we are off again through the high clouds and continental blue to the altitudes where the great American forest or the great American desert or the great American farm that American agricultural fingers have won from the wilderness these two hundred years, takes on again its almost imperceptible motion below the wing, unwinding like the image of a dream landscape in the sleep of childhood. Sometimes a sensation interrupts the trance, the outline of the Rocky Mountains or the great cluster of man-made pinnacles at Chicago, visible two hundred miles away across the prairie, but these to me, for all their beauty, for all their differences from what surrounds them, are unwelcome interruptions. I like, I positively crave, the undeviating sameness of America from the air. It is what America is about, it is the story of America. I hear the historian in me, as I watch cornfield and pasture hacking away mile after mile into the remnant of forest, forest waiting forever its chance to creep back, as I watch irrigation stretching its fingers into the desert, desert biding its time, as I watch Canadian wheat rolling to the horizons, horizons beyond which the north wind stirs, saying, “Remember, all this was wilderness but a twinkling ago.”

For the American landscape that creates the flight of dream across its endlessly unfolding, neat, and productive geometry is the most rapidly constructed large artefact in the world. It is not, at close hand, beautiful as the English landscape that surrounds the village in which I live is beautiful. There every field has a name, every patch of woodland surviving from the primeval forest that was disappearing before the Romans came is pruned and coppiced, every farm is primped and cosseted and mown and gardened. England really is a garden, whose beauty never ceases to entrance me, and I find nothing like it in the United States or Canada. There the seasons are too harsh, the hands of man too few to give the landscape that temperate, trimmed, frost-free, succulent look and feel that pluck at English heartstrings. American hedges are rough, field boundaries straggle, woodland is choked with the debris of years of fall and rot, grasses are slow to green and lie long sere and yellow; under the microscope the American countryside is coarse and unkempt. It is from a distance, above all from an altitude, that the beauty of the landscape asserts itself, comes into focus, demands a response from the onlooker. The response I make is simultaneously aesthetic and historical and mystical. Mystical because, like the aerial photographers who have discovered the Mexican dust drawings too large to have been executed by any earthbound eye, I wonder how the haphazard work of farmer and forester can have combined to construct the work of art that the American landscape is; aesthetic because that landscape is a great work of art, drawn with a limner’s hand, painted by a master of the palette, in a perfectly modulated pointillism of sepia and umber and ultramarine and viridian and ochre and auburn and sable and cobalt and Payne’s Gray, that alters with the play of sunlight and varies with the change of season but never, even under snowfall, loses its form and subtlety; historical because I know that every straight line, mathematical curve, sharp edge, softened gradient, flattened contour, raised hollow, rectilinear river-course tells of the effort of man’s labour on the face of the continent. It is a labour without parallel in my own small country, where age has worked with nature to soften the work of man into something that appears natural and timeless in itself. It is impossible to recreate in the imagination what England must have looked like before the forest went four thousand years ago; it is impossible in America not to feel the power of the forest or the desert or the rivers lurking at the edge of what man has wrought in two hundred years, watching for a moment of inattention or a relaxation of effort, waiting to return.

Over the years the drama of the American landscape has ceased to be simply a spectacle. It has awoken in me a powerful and continuing curiosity in what it means for what I do. I am a military historian. Rivers, mountains, forest, swamp and plain, desert and plough, valley and plateau: these are the primary raw materials with which the military historian works. In constructing a narrative, in charting the movements of armies, the facts of geography stand first. What sense is there in setting out to describe the campaigns of Napoleon, which wander across the face of Europe from Portugal to Poland, from Naples to the Netherlands, unless one understands, and causes the reader to understand also, how the Alps and the Pyrenees, the Rhine and the Vistula, bore upon the campaign plans he made? The necessity is greater still for the conquests of Hitler, whose tank columns captured first what was easiest, the North European plain, were then slowed by the forests and marshes of western Russia, and finally petered out of energy on the great rivers of the steppe and the mountain barrier of the Caucasus.

America, too, is a continent of conquest, by the Spanish, the French, and the English, but the military problems with which it confronted the Europeans were different from those the great conquerors of the Old World had to overcome. Because it was indeed an old world, old before imperialism began, its geography was already known to travellers, its natural obstacles and barriers understood, and many were penetrated by long-distance trade routes. The venturers to America knew nothing and the native Americans they encountered could tell them little but rumour of what lay beyond their tribal lands. Conquerors had therefore to be explorers also and geographers before they could be traders and settlers. For their own security they had to build forts but forts built in the wilderness were useless unless they commanded a natural line of communication or penetration into the interior. When the venturers came to fight each other, as they did as soon as their legal claims to territory and material spheres of interest clashed, they needed topographical knowledge, above all maps, all the more. It is not accidental that Champlain, the founder of French Canada, was a skilled mapmaker or that George Washington, the victor of the War of American Independence, was by profession a surveyor who had recorded the topography of wide areas of the back country over which he was later to campaign.

So when I look now at the American panorama from 35,000 feet, it is not just the mosaic of field and forest that passes before my eyes. Before my conscious mind unrolls also a running list of speculations and questions. They are, I know, the same sort of questions soldiers always ask in unfamiliar country. I continue to seek answers on the ground. Looking out of my hotel window not long ago, I struggled to identify the river flowing between the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Mississippi, I was told; but surely it was already too wide, so far from Memphis and Natchez and its delta in the Gulf of Mexico; and it seemed to be in the wrong place, too far to the west. How, I asked an interviewer as we sat in the offices of the Toronto Globe and Mail, with Lake Ontario under our gaze, did it connect for navigation with Lake Erie, since the Niagara Falls was the natural waterway between the two? The Welland Canal is the answer, but he did not know and neither then did I. Where is the South Pass through the Rockies, the gateway to Oregon and the Northwest, whose discovery opened settlement in the early nineteenth century? I thought I identified it from an aeroplane on a flight to Seattle, only to be told that it is so inconspicuous wagonmasters often missed it on the ground on their way west.

All these conundrums of intercommunication, still so difficult for the individual to solve from hazy memory of exact and available information, were total and almost impenetrable mysteries to the pioneers. They were solved only by dangerous and half-blind ventures into the great American forest, by laborious boat journeys up uncharted rivers, running rapids, portaging past shallows, by unguided voyages across lakes as big as seas, by packtrailing over mountain passes higher than most European peaks, by pony trekking into the featureless and apparent infinity of the Great Plains. Finally and miraculously, when the pieces of the jigsaw had been cut out one by one, they had been assembled into the man-made wonder of settled America. It is the most stupendous achievement of military as well as human history.

I love America because of the miracle of its landscape and I love it, too, because of the excitement I feel in flying to it, in the knowledge that after the ocean there will be those sculptured woods and contoured ploughlands and Cloudy Ways of city lights and distant, diminished mountain ridges, and infinities of forest reaching beyond the horizon. Going to America, even in an era of air travel, recreates in the voyager something of the sense of danger and discovery that the first voyagers must have felt when they took ship on the stormy Atlantic to pick their way below the ice and fogs to landfall on the far shore. The aircraft door closes, shutting one off from those cosy English voices, tea, taxis, Tube, Terminal 4. The transatlantic jet hurtles down the runway. Windsor Castle flashes for an instant under the wing, the Thames becomes a silver ribbon, tiny, familiar places appear and disappear through holes in the cloud, Ireland, even more patchworked, passes for a moment through the field of vision, and then the Atlantic begins its hours of journey under one’s gaze. Sometimes I read, sometimes I think, sometimes I talk to the passenger next to me, for people do talk on transatlantic flights, often intimately, telling me what they do, even confiding the story of their lives. The most confident air traveller is touched by the unreality of suspense between ocean and infinity, between continent and continent, on the Atlantic great circle and I have heard secrets in that empty passage between the cloud-stacks, told secrets myself. Yet I never quite give my full attention, for I am waiting, with growing excitement, for what I know the crawling hands of my watch will show me two hours, one hour hence: the awful, icebound interior of Greenland, sterilised by glaciers two miles thick, perhaps a glimpse of the coastal footholds on the Canadian side where the great cold of the Middle Ages killed the Viking settlers to the last man in the fifteenth century; then the tundra of the Canadian north, numberless lakes, mouthless rivers, nameless mountains, numbing desolation.

Optical illusion begins: can that be a road? No, shadow at the foot of a long barren ridge. Then there is indeed a road, and a building by a lake, and a man-made swathe in the scrappy tree-cover and then a settlement, a solitary vehicle in motion, a village, a little town. The wilderness, the wilderness of the ocean and the Arctic, is receding, civilisation promises. Soon I see harbours and the white strands of a softer shore and the wake of ships ploughing to a known place and forest cut back from the sea and the landscape squared for cereal and pasture. The sun casts slanting shadows across a countryside cleared and shaped and networked and canalised and bridged and more and more densely settled. Suburbs appear among surviving woodland and then the outskirts of a city and then, if we are approaching over water, the star shapes of the fortresses built by the Federalists to guard America from the great outside two hundred years ago, and then the boundary fence of the gateway airport, the familiar brown grass beside the runway, the blur of airport buildings, the huge painted sails of other transatlantic aircraft parked at their piers, the sudden twilight as our own aircraft comes to rest.

A new excitement begins. First there is the excitement of encounter with American bureaucracy, uniformed, brisk and purposeful, suddenly and disconcertingly friendly. “What is the purpose of your visit? What sort of lecture? History? I’m interested in history. I read a lot of history. Military history? Are you interested in the Second World War?” Next there is the excitement of America on the move, a travelling nation which travels with energy, despatch, and a multiplicity of ways—taxis, hire cars, hotel shuttles, car-park service vehicles, cars, limousines to out-of-town, downtown buses, subway, Greyhound, Trailways, inter-terminal courtesy coaches, connections to regional airports by USAir, Air America, Delta, Northwest, to Harrisburg, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Hartford/Springfield, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. At the sidewalk beyond the terminal door a bewildering variety of vehicles circulate, appearing, disappearing, reappearing in stately rondo. Ramada Inn, Long-term Parking, Westchester County Limousines, La Guardia Transfer, AAA Taxi, Checker Cab, Midtown Manhattan—Buy Ticket from Driver. The university or the publisher or the literary agency have said they will send to meet me. In what—cab or car or stretch limousine? Something separates itself from the procession. I have been found. I am collected. The purr of the motor guides me away through Premier Air Freight and Federal Express and Budget and Precision Flight Maintenance and Flying Kitchen to the brown concrete underpass that leads to the chain of yellow lights that glare on the four lanes of traffic corralled between the brown concrete walls of the freeway as it flows at exactly measured interval, at exactly regulated speed, citywards. Bridges of Cylopean granite blocks—what bridges America builds, as massive and permanent as the bedrock from which they are hewn—cast their shadows on the traffic stream, tunnels swallow it, tolls arrest it—“Exact Change, No Pennies”—towering steel suspension spans drag it upwards over half-glimpsed bodies of water, brown concrete exit ramps deposit it in city streets. I have arrived.

The excitement of American greetings follow, the excitement of American friendship. The English greet their friends with warmth but not with demonstration. What is there to demonstrate? Not surprise that we have been brought together, not concern for the travails of the journey. England is a tiny country in which anyone of my age and background does, in that loose but not untruthful phrase, know everyone else. America is different. It is a single culture but it is many societies. Americans do not know each other. English people move house infrequently, and then perhaps only a mile down the road. The dense network of English social connections—school, university, regiment, club, aunts, seaside holidays, friends of friends—reknots itself a fraction and relations are re-established. Americans do not move house, they relocate, go to another state, another coast, lose touch, make new friends, perhaps no friends at all, just acquaintances, people passing through. That free-floating weightlessness that entrances the European traveller in North America bears heavily on its inhabitants. Who do they know, where do they stand, what are the foundations, where do they begin? The extraordinary slowness of American conversation is a clue to their uncertainties. On introduction, the English fall instantly into rapid chatter, transmitting, as in the high-speed encipherments of a John le Carré novel, a compact code of social and geographical allusions, incomprehensible to a stranger, deeply reassuring to sender and receiver. Americans sound each other out, wondering if they will be understood, ending their sentences with question marks. English speech is emphatic, American interrogative. There are twenty-four cities called Springfield in the United States—the largest of them in Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Vermont, two of them two thousand miles apart—and so twenty-four necessities for clarification, twenty-four occasions for ending a statement of whence one comes on that distinctive, upward, American lilt.

No wonder that American social reconnaissance proceeds so slowly. No wonder that any reunion of friends is so instant and intense. A traveller from another state receives, merits exclamations, endearment, solicitude. A traveller from another continent enjoys endearment tenfold. Those filigrees of friendship which alleviate the loneliness of Americans inside their vast homeland bind even more closely people from different worlds. How long has it been? How good to see you! How was the journey? How did you travel? Where did you stop over? Have you eaten, rested, slept? What do you need? How long can you stay? It is so good to see you, to see you, to see you.

I love America for its friendship. Instant friendship, they say, the dawn friendship, is the distinctive American gift to human kinship. I have made instant friendships in America, and many have lasted. Some, too brief to last, remain with me still. I recall the friendship of a young sailor, proud of his new uniform, utterly innocent of the world, who sat beside me on the train from Boston to New York forty years ago, told me of the country place he came from in the Midwest, trembled with the adventure of his new life, solemnly lettered out my transatlantic address, assured me we should meet again. I recall the friendship of a fragile Italian-American girl, become suddenly conscious of her ethnic roots as third-generation immigrants do, a college graduate hoping to teach high school, who heard my English voice buying a ticket across the bus, produced an Italian newspaper from her purse, asked me about Europe, told me of her efforts to learn Italian, of her yearning to discover whence her grandparents came, of her tentative dissatisfaction with the Anglo-Saxonism which their decision to emigrate had imposed on her, and asked me if she would be happier in the old country. I recall the friendship of a young Texan lawyer, marooned beside me at 35,000 feet somewhere between Denver and Chicago, who revealed when I told him I had been at Oxford that his chief interest in life was the work of C. S. Lewis—this was a decade before Shadowlands—interrogated me about The Inklings, asked if I had ever drunk beer in the Eagle and Child, walked me into corners of the university I had never visited, and urged we should explore it together when a break in his practice gave him the chance to travel.

There are other instant friendships in my recollection of America; but old friendships are best, and I have a host of old American friends, to whose friendship I look forward as one of the keenest of pleasures awaiting me at the end of the great transatlantic passage. University friends, first met forty years ago in England, academic friends, encountered on campuses across America, military friends, some chanced on as far away as Lebanon or Saudi Arabia, publishing friends from Boston and New York, newspaper friends from St. Louis and San Francisco, literary friends from almost everywhere, and family friends—for as a father I have acquired an American son-in-law and so American relatives by marriage—in Manhattan and Long Island and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

American friendship is intense, far more intense than friendship in England. English friends hold each other at a distance, only hinting at what they feel and believe. In a sense we know each other too well, in our tight little island, to reveal anything more about our inner selves than code and ellipsis will. Americans, at least to this Englishman, bare their souls. I know the life story certainly of three Americans in more detail than I know that of any fellow countryman or countrywoman. I know the life story of an American woman from her upbringing in trust-fund ease, through her Seven Sisters college education, her early excursions to Europe in search of wearables from Schiaparelli and Worth, her two marriages to foreigners, one brief and unhappy, one of deep mutual love abbreviated by fatal illness, her discovery of literary talent, her rise to fame as a foreign correspondent, her encounters with the great of the international literary world, her disenchantment with it, her withdrawal to quietude on the fringe of campus life. I know the life story of a modest American hero, the graduate of a great Ivy League university, who decided on the day he got his degree that America would enter the Second World War, went down the street to the recruiting office, joined the Marines, and spent the next four years leading a company of infantry up island beaches in the Pacific until death and wounds brought him command of his battalion; the war over, he married a childhood sweetheart, raised a large family, made a modest fortune, devoted his retirement years to travelling the United States, encouraging other sufferers from a progressive illness to which he had fallen victim to look on the bright side, see the best in life. I know the life story of another American who spent a similar war, returned to teach college, espoused pacifism, became a towering exemplar of the principles he held to two generations of students, worked tirelessly for tolerance and civil liberty and yet cherished above all his wartime comradeships and the life friendship he had made with the British captain who rescued his ship’s company from a minefield off the D-day beaches in June 1944.

It is friendships with people like these that await me at the end of the great transatlantic passage, and renewing them is one of the things that makes the journey worth while. Another is the knowledge that there will be new encounters, new acquaintances, new friends—and new discoveries among the natural and man-made geography of the continent. Discovering Canada has come late to me, and I still know it only patchily, far less well than I want. Something of what I feel for it I hope I have transmitted in the pages on the English and French wars in North America that follow. My discovery of the United States continues. I take a growing pleasure in adding to my acquaintance with an American dimension which Americans ignore and are constantly surprised to find of interest to Europeans, which is the oldness, the growing and surprisingly extensive oldness, of their civilisation. “I live in an old house,” and then, hastily, “not old, of course, by your standards.” How often that has been said to me. It was said by a young, vaguely Marxist, and highly Europeanised professor at Princeton. I pointed out to him that, as he lived in colonial Nassau Street, his house was certainly older than mine, built in 1810, and just to emphasise the point, that the dean’s building, Nassau Hall, was older by forty years than that in which I taught at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Princeton is not unusual in its oldness. The length of the Atlantic coast and parts of the interior are dense with clusters of eighteenth-century building, not just in such famous beauty spots as Charleston and Savannah but in hundreds of other settlements as well, where, contrarily, it is often neglected and decaying. I have found a disfavoured eighteenth-century waterfront quarter in Manchester, New Hampshire; much of Alexandria, Virginia, is Georgian in a raggle-taggle state; the Federalist river-front in St. Louis, Missouri, is being pillaged for its bricks; Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the most magnificent Georgian townscapes either side of the Atlantic, is only slowly being brought back from decrepitude. History drags Americans across the sea, to Canterbury and Bath and Aix-en-Provence, when it might drag at their heels to stay at home, to discover the beauties and charm of all those small places that enchant me whenever I stumble upon them. A month or two ago, in Stonington, Connecticut, I chanced on one of the most beautiful small town centres I have ever seen, colonnaded shops, pillared churches, green-shuttered colonial houses on brick-paved sidewalks, order, proportion, dignity. Who would ever want to leave Stonington?

To linger in old America, however, or to look for it where it no longer exists, is to misunderstand the continent. Americans have ruined their cities. Places like Hartford and Newark and Providence and Atlanta once had city centres built on a human, European scale, as early photographs show; Atlanta has lost its in my lifetime. Yet to regret what is gone is to wish that America is other than it is. Space, not time, I once heard George Steiner reflect in a lecture, is the American dimension. The old cities have lost their hearts because they were built by people who thought at a foot’s pace, journeyed by horse. The vastness of America, for all the heroism of early journeys made by foot or horse into its unexplored interior, demanded other means of motion, the locomotive, the motor car, the aeroplane, means of devouring space, not of submitting to it. It is the space that surrounds American cities, the interminable distances between them, that have done for small streets and town squares, felled the shade trees, left the porticoed churches standing amid desolation, driven freight yards and interchanges and airport expressways into the order that once was. It could not have been otherwise. Once Americans decided to command their continent from coast to coast, all three thousand miles of it, to have no internal frontiers, to spend a common currency, to obey, often not to obey, a uniform code of law, to recognise a single government, to be one people, the life of the small city, the shape of the pedestrian neighbourhood, was doomed. Travelling America confronted settled America and travelling America triumphed.

I am a traveller in America, and I travel further and faster there than I ever do at home. Here I alert my wife if I am going down the village street to the post office, decide the day before on a journey to our market town eight miles away. Our annual migration to Scotland takes weeks of preparation and entails an overnight stay with friends to break a drive of four hundred miles. In America, at a publisher’s behest or a personal whim—“I must walk the Malvern Hill battlefield again”—I whirl about the continent, sometimes recrossing my track between the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake in a single week. I always travel with elation, looking forward to arrival in new places, old places, looking forward again to moving on. The litany of placenames set out on the travel agent’s itinerary, like the litany chanted by the announcer at Grand Central Station, can intoxicate. I see I am going to Austin and Minneapolis and Seattle and Sacramento and Montgomery and Tucson and my spirit lifts. I am travelling in America, I am free-floating over the United States.

And yet: there is something terrifying about a country, a society, a people which lives, in George Steiner’s phrase, not in the dimension of time but space. Time is space for Americans; here we say “five miles” or “fifty miles” and time our departure accordingly. Nowhere is more than an hour or two from anywhere else. “Nine hours,” Americans say, when they discuss a car journey, or “a day” or even “two days.” American space devours time, dominates lives, can consume whole swathes of years on earth. “I travel a lot,” Americans say, or “I used to travel a lot.” Decades of a lifetime have been paid out on interstates, over small airport check-ins, at car rental returns, in Ramadas and Holiday Inns. Space has greyed hair, lined faces, made a history of itself in personal memory, a history of coming and going, stopping over, moving on. It has made a history in the collective life of America, a country always moving on inside itself, never stopping over for very long. The history of America is the history of its vastness, of man’s wandering over its face, his probing for passageways through its towering natural barriers, his tinkering with the power of its stupendous rivers, his ventures into its dark forest, his tentative, always dangerous, never completed efforts to take and dominate land and climate.

A people who live in space, not time, are different from others, certainly different from the peoples of Europe whose wilderness, never large or very fierce, disappeared four thousand years ago. Different most of all from the English, seagirt in their tiny gardened island, on whom space scarcely intrudes at all but history circumscribes everything they think and do. Their transmission of a common language and law to the Americans creates a resemblance entirely delusive. No two peoples on earth capable of intercommunication can be less alike than they. I love America; but I am not at home there. I love the mystery of America; but mystery it remains to me. I love Americans; but even American friends are strangers. America has changed my life. America has saved my world, the European world threatened by two pitiless dictatorships which overshadowed my childhood and growing up. Yet, though I think of America always with admiration and heartfelt gratitude, I go there in a mood of exploration and wonder. I meet Americans who come to me in a similar mood of anticipation and discovery. Who are they, these people from the great spaces of their continent? What do they think, what do they feel, what do they know that I do not know? They have a secret, the secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth. What it is, I am still trying to find out.

America at a Distance

When did I first see an American? On celluloid, I suppose, for the cinema of my childhood was an American possession. It was American films we queued to see in wartime Britain, not their tepid domestic imitations, and American stars we took as our heroes and heroines. Not that I had the slightest interest in heroines at the age of eight or so, when I first penetrated the magic darkness of a cinema. It was heroes I sought, and Hollywood supplied the real thing. Gary Cooper was a particular favourite, perhaps because he resembled my father, then the centre of my universe, but almost anyone tall, lanky, and slow-spoken would do. I was entranced by the way the men in Destry Rides Again, say, or Stagecoach walked, with that loose, let-me-at-the-horizon lope, and even more so by the way they spoke, as if one word were almost too much for them and a second would choke in their throats. It was not only the cowboy films that cast a spell: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, that sleepy epic of plain folk, caught me up in what I suppose I would now call the American dream, and I was riveted by an Anglo—North American film, The Forty-ninth Parallel—blatant propaganda it would seem today—in which an escaped U-boat crew, at loose in Canada, try but fail to bring down the Four Freedoms.

All these misty experiences must have come to me in Britain’s glory-time, between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor, when Hitler’s army stood on the French coast and only a filigree of Spitfires hung between my unthinking self and invasion. No inkling of that impending danger touched my childish happiness, in what I remember as an eternal summer, no shadow fell over the hay meadows where we played, not a single tremor of anxiety disturbed the serenity of our family life. I suppose my parents must have discussed between themselves what hope Britain had of extricating itself from its perilous isolation as Hitler’s only enemy. I suppose, too, that they must have pondered—as Winston Churchill, we now know, did day and night—whether the United States would come to our rescue and, if so, how and when. I am sure that what hopes they had were pinned on the United States alone, for I clearly remember that the peremptory alliance with the Soviet Union which followed Hitler’s surprise attack of 22 June 1941 pleased my father absolutely not at all. He was not only fervently anti-Bolshevik but held unwaveringly to the view that we had entered the war to defend Poland, of which country he rightly identified the Soviet Union to be as deadly an enemy as Nazi Germany.

Yet, if we were waiting for the Americans, by not a single word do I remember my parents reproaching them for the delay. In so far as I recall any mention of the United States at all during those eighteen months of danger and privation—distant air raids, daily shortages of everyday necessities—it was as the source of a fairy-tale gift called “food parcels,” heard about if not actually received, and as a doughty co-belligerent in the First World War. My father had met and made friends with Americans on the Western Front and never spoke but with a chuckle of their open manner and easy ways. He mentioned names, now lost to me, and may even, I think, have kept in touch for a time with a doughboy against whom he had boxed—he had been a lightning middleweight in his youth—in the Rhineland championships after the Armistice.

There was more, however, to my parents’ feelings for America than suppliant hope or old acquaintance. Neither of them had been to the United States—no Briton had in those days unless very rich or very poor—but they were nevertheless what today we could call Americanophiles. This was not a common attitude in the Britain of my childhood, when affection for any country except one’s own was thought—except again by the rich or the poor—to be vaguely unpatriotic. Most of the British were chauvinistic, and if my parents were not, it was, I surmise, because of their sense of belonging to a minority. They were Irish by ancestry and Catholic by religion. Their Catholicism supplied a sort of cosmopolitanism to our family life, since an interest in the Catholic social movement had taken my father abroad and made him friends in France, Germany, and the Low Countries, while a family tradition had sent my mother to school in Belgium where she had learnt excellent French. Curiously, however, it was not the culture of France or Germany that I remember being discussed in the family circle. Perhaps it was taken for granted; I cannot, at this distance in time, reconstruct the atmosphere. What I do very strongly remember, by contrast, is their shared admiration for American literature. The American cinema was admired too, of course, but some concession was made to the charm of French films. In the field of the novel no concessions were admitted. The American novelists were held to be the modern masters. It is unlikely, I now realise, that the exigently Catholic outlook of my parents would have allowed them to recognise virtue in D. H. Lawrence or Joyce or hedonistic Bloomsbury. Nevertheless, my unbelieving grandfather, who lived with us, was as adamant as they that the “real” novelists were all American: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Willa Cather. The craft of the novel was believed to have migrated across the Atlantic and to have found its highest modern form in—if I recall family conversations correctly—Death Comes to the Archbishop.

If it was important in forming my first view of America and Americans that my parents admired their literature, it was even more important that they saw and spoke of that other world as a place with a reality beyond that of print. They also recognised, and in some way communicated to me, the idea of America as a separate civilisation from our own. There was, I seem to hear them saying, a world across the Atlantic where the permanencies which set us apart—established religion, monarchy, empire, fixed division between one class and another, unequal opportunity in education—did not apply, and that the absence of these permanencies made perfect sense in a society that was both autonomous and admirable. The United States, I was led to understand, was a real country, to be thought about and appreciated on its own terms. That was not how most of their British contemporaries saw the United States; but, it must be said, nor did Hemingway or Hollywood—the main influences then on British perceptions of the other English-speaking culture—help them to do so. Hemingway’s subversion of convention was taken to be distinctively American; yet his real gift, of course, was to have turned the freshness of an American eye on Europe itself, which was largely what he wrote about. Hollywood’s achievement, by contrast, had been to mythologise America’s exotica—the Wild West, the super-rich, organised crime, Broadway, and the kitsch of immigrant and small-town life. The result was that the English of the 1940s had an Arabian Nightspicture of the civilisation across the Atlantic, peopled by crooners, funny Irish priests—in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald gave them both—monosyllabic sheriffs, high-stepping showgirls, egomaniac millionaires, scar-faced gangsters, and puritanical private eyes. It was not a world with which the English could identify at all, since their own decorous, deferential, and law-abiding society yielded no equivalents to any of those figures. Real Americans, had they met any, could have told them that real America was quite different from Hollywood and, in the everyday essentials of food on the table, clean clothes for school, and getting to work on time, not so dissimilar from real England; but there were no real Americans on hand to make the point. Like listeners, therefore, to the tales of a traveller to an unimaginably distant land, a Marco Polo, a Mungo Park, a Richard Burton, they took Hollywood as truth, truth perhaps to be savoured with a pinch of salt, but real enough to satisfy their need to know how life was lived on the other side of the Atlantic; and very strange they thought it.

There were, it is true, some English people, neither rich nor poor, who grasped that there was another America beside the Hollywood version. They were, for the most part, academics and intellectuals who had read, or knew of, James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth, an explanation of the workings of its government and constitution by a Victorian admirer, and had begun to follow that remarkable Scot, Denis Brogan, in his exploration of the politics of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Soon they would be listening to Brogan as a participant on the static-troubled airwaves of Transatlantic Quiz and, even more enthusiastically, to the expatriate Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America (it is evidence of the imaginative distance separating the New from the Old World in the 1940s that a broadcast should have been represented as a communication by post). Brogan’s immensely erudite—and entertaining—political science could, however, do little to counter the more widespread impressions left by those stories and books by British authors about America known to all English people (I contrast “British” with “English” here because the Scots and Irish had, through their continuing tradition of emigration to the United States and Canada, their own direct access to first-hand news of those countries). Such stories were few, but the list certainly included Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet—the book in which he first brought Sherlock Holmes to the world—and Kipling’s Captains Courageous, the fruit of his—unsuccessful—attempt to settle in his American wife’s homeland. I cannot remember when either first came my way, but read them I certainly had by the age of ten or thereabouts, thus joining a majority for whom Sherlock Holmes and Kipling were winter-evening standbys. I certainly cannot now reconstruct how influential those tales of desperate adventure on the Great Plains and of derring-do on the Grand Banks were in forming my first impressions of American life, so overlaid are they by a lifetime’s reading and by scores of transatlantic journeys, but some frisson of the excitement they aroused remains. Distance, space, danger, sudden riches, extravagant character, grandeur of scenery, unpredictability of action, unexpectedness of outcome—those were the ingredients. If they cast their spell still, how much more strongly then. The spell did not touch me alone, of course; it was a common part of the English perception of the transatlantic world and a positive reinforcement of the newer and more immediate impression left by Hollywood. For it, too, dealt in tales of danger and sudden riches, filled the screen with images of space and distance, peopled its plots with extravagant characters, and drew them to unexpected conclusions; no wonder if the English doubted whether such a world, so unlike their own circumscribed little universe, could be a real world at all.



If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!