An American Journey

So began my first American journey, a greater journey than I had ever made before, a journey that remains the most memorable of my life. I had never flown, and committed myself to a transatlantic crossing in a tiny propeller-driven airliner with perfect insouciance. The incidents of the flight included an engine failure in mid-Atlantic which changed that, to wholly beneficial effect. Immediately affected by fear of flying which lasted almost into middle age, I avoided aircraft whenever I could for many years, thus bringing myself to make enormous transits around North America by train and bus and so see at eye-level places and things I would have missed altogether had that particular PanAm DC-6—called, I remember, Ponce de León, after an early explorer of the Americas—undergone a more stringent bout of maintenance at Heathrow.

A flight of twenty-eight hours would not today leave me in any condition to receive lasting impressions of an unknown country on arrival. I remember deplaning at Boston with almost physical recall. Heat of a sort I had never experienced struck as we descended the steps to the runway and was to oppress me throughout the remaining months of an American East Coast summer. Air conditioning, also a new and for a moment gratefully experienced sensation, had an equally oppressive effect. It upset my allergic balance, causing me to suffer violent bouts of hay fever whenever I went through a temperature barrier. So was formed my first impression of the New World. It has—I have not changed this view and I do not apologise if it causes offence—one of the world’s worst climates.

I melted, drooped, and sneezed for the next three months. There were compensations. The first was an expedition to buy new clothes. The English of my youth wore the same clothes winter and summer, grey flannel trousers and tweed jackets. The day after arrival I descended, with the first instalment of dollars my scholarship provided, to the Coop in Harvard Square and outfitted myself with chinos and a seersucker suit. This was an intense excitement. New clothes were still a new experience for my wartime generation. New clothes that gave one a different identity were fancy dress. I did not quite dare the seersucker suit for several weeks and wore it first when I took the train for Washington from Pennsylvania Station in New York. Late and flustered, I threw my bags into a coach at the feet of two very large and black sleeping-car porters who saluted my appearance with a cry, “Here comes a Princeton man.” I have cherished it ever afterwards as a compliment.

I do not suppose that today a Princeton man would stand out; the Princeton undergraduates I knew when I was a Fellow there in 1984 were no better- or worse-dressed than any other young Americans. America had changed in thirty years. The America, and particularly the New York, I encountered in 1957 was a more stratified country than it is today—safer, too. I have never encountered anything but kindness in the United States. Statistics seem to show, nevertheless, and Americans clearly feel, that they live now in a violent and dangerous society. Before my seersucker sortie I had spent a solitary fortnight of perfect serenity in New York, in an apartment lent by briefly encountered friends of Oxford American friends. The apartment was on Union Square in lower Manhattan; its owners were an experimental filmmaker and his artistic wife. He had been at Harvard, she at Wellesley, and the contents reflected their interests—books, paintings, a large, leafless tree that touched the ceiling of the double-storey drawing room. Across the way was a diner where I ate lunch. In the square in the evenings clusters of passers-by listened to soapbox orators denouncing the supporters of causes they held repugnant, a mixed bag of revivalists and civil libertarians. During the noon hours I retired from the tropical heat. In the cooler evenings I wandered the streets, sometimes as far as Central Park forty blocks northwards, sometimes just round the corner to Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Town, and the sidewalk tavern called McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, not yet a tourist attraction, which I knew about from Joseph Mitchell’s marvellous collection of ethnic New Yorker pieces of the same name. I loved New York on first acquaintance. It was an exotic city, rich with instant friendship, but easy and slow moving. I wish I could say the same about it today.

I would have lingered longer in New York, but an arrangement made with a fellow travelling scholar, now by chance my brother-in-law, required me to be in Washington by a certain date; it was that which put me at Penn Station in my seersucker suit. He had the car in which we were to set off to the South. He also had an identical seersucker suit, bought at the Harvard Coop on the same day. So outfitted, we set off together in a Ford station wagon one morning in July 1957 to discover the United States.

Sonnenreise, the young Goethe called his expedition to the lands of lemon blossom. He set a fashion among young Northern Europeans for expeditions southward that lasts to this day. Neither Maurice nor I was a young Goethe, but we were little travelled, over-educated, abrim with reading about the Civil War, and filled with expectation of what we would find in the old Confederacy. Our journey, I see now, was to be a sort of Sonnenreise. I have not consulted Maurice about his memories. A Sonnenreise, however, it remains to me, a passage of new and strange and wholly un-European experience, steamy, tropical, alien, alluring, cast through a landscape and among peoples which had no equivalents in the green, chilly, and formal little island from which we had begun.

Today long-distance travellers by road in the United States make their way along the great interstate highways. There were no interstates in 1957, only the old numbered Federal highways which wandered the stagecoach routes between city and city. U.S. 1 was the route we chose southward out of Washington on an itinerary only partly planned, and it took us first to Richmond, Virginia, then—Americans still laugh when I tell them—to Goldsboro, North Carolina, thence to Charleston, South Carolina, and so to Atlanta, Georgia. Gentle memories of Goldsboro, hick town though Americans may think it, remain with me still. I liked it because, in the middle of unfettered space, its citizens had chosen to build what then passed for a skyscraper in the South, a touching symbol of civic pride. I liked it because it was the first town in which I stayed in a motel, that brilliantly creative American contribution to the conveniences of travel, the American caravanserai, without vermin, camel smells, importunate hangers-on, or unspeakable sanitation. I liked it because, in the growing cool of a Southern evening, I could sit outside above the dust of an unpaved sidewalk and watch the beautiful legs of girls otherwise unseen in the dying twilight walking—where? I longed to know. I longed to follow. The English girls with whom I had grown up wore skirts below their knees. Southern girls, even in 1957, wore abbreviated shorts above golden, athletic thighs.

Then Charleston. Charleston, though perhaps not then, is twinned with Bath, the miraculous Georgian, golden-stone city of the West of England, founded by the Romans around the warm-water springs that bubble up from its bedrock, formalised and terraced by eighteenth-century classicists. Charleston—wood, paint, and plaster—is as perfectly classical as Bath, but softened by palmettos, bougainvillaea, and flowery, trailing tendrils. I was enchanted by Charleston at first sight, decided then that it was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, a decision from which visits to Venice and Aix-en-Provence have scarcely deflected me, and settled down to enjoy it. Introductions brought us meetings with eccentric Charlestonians; explorations down side streets and along waterfronts introduced us to oysters in hot tomato sauce drunk with Arcticly cold beer; pressing on doorbells took us into colonial interiors which seemed scarcely changed since Barbadian sugar merchants had unshipped their English furniture and silver into them two hundred years earlier.

Charleston tempts one to linger and calls one back. I have been there since, more often than to any other small city in the United States. In 1957 I had to leave, sooner than I wanted, for Georgia and the deeper South. In Atlanta, then still recognisably the Gone with the Wind city it has ceased to be, we met the governor, brother of a notorious gerrymanderer. Further on, in a soda fountain in a tiny backwoods place, we were mistaken for travelling revivalists—“You-all preachers?”; seersucker suits had a different semiology south of New York—and made our first encounter with red earth roads, verandaed, ramshackle cabins, and the water-melon culture; however cold the interiors of the pensioned-off Coca-Cola chests from which they were sold by the roadside I never acquired the taste.

Deep, deep in Georgia, drawn by Maurice’s inexplicable urge to visit something called the Okefenokee Swamp, we spent one of the most memorable of our dozens of nights on the road. In Lumber City—“Population 69,” said the signboard at the city limits—there was only one place to eat, we were the only diners, and the dinner hour was already over before our arrival. The proprietress nevertheless relented, covered a wooden table with what she had to offer, and left us with her father and infant son to pick through dishes of okra, grits, black-eyed peas, pork, and potatoes. Grandfather remembered Lumber City as a thriving place, full of immigrants who had come to cut timber from the virgin pine stands. He had difficulty placing us. “England? New England?” When we said no he mused while the little grandson surveyed us with wide eyes in a silent face. Grandfather tried again. “How long you-all been over?” Six weeks, we said. He mused some more. “You sure have learned the language fast.” In memory I see planked walls, planked floor—can I have imagined oil lamps? The heavy insect sounds of a Southern night filled the gaps in conversation. Second-growth timber stood close about the shanty. It might have been a sinister setting. I remember kindness, gentle hospitality, the utterly innocent curiosity that travellers among remote peoples report.

I suppose we were among descendants of our own stock who might have been settled since the eighteenth century. Next day, when we ventured in a shallow metal boat among alligators and water snakes in the still, steamy interior of the swamp, our guide was a lean, masculine young waterman. He had left the Okefenokee only once, to do his military service, and had no desire to do so again. Sometimes to our alarm he leapt on to floating islands of reed and grass to stir an alligator into activity or shake an egret into flight from a shallow-rooted tree; sometimes he stopped in a backwater to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette. We might have been with the Marsh Arabs.

Just over the border in Florida we turned west to begin our circuit of the Gulf Coast. Jacksonville I remember for the night-time glimpses it gave into the sort of sprawl of cabin life I was not to see again until I visited Africa; St. Augustine for its tiny, bastioned fort, first outpost of Spanish power in the Americas north of Panama. St. Augustine had charm—gone now, I am told—a Caribbean charm compounded of rum punch and shrimp dinners served in lopsided, wooden tourist places that mass tourism had not yet found. One evening a restaurant pianist welcomed “our English guests” by hammering out “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner” on his old upright, to our embarrassment; neither of us knew the words.

Beyond St. Augustine, on a morning of pearl-like stillness, we crossed the St. Johns River, filled with mothballed destroyers surviving from the Battle of the Atlantic, and then on by day-long hops to Tallahassee and Pensacola and Mobile and Biloxi towards the mouth of the Mississippi. We had a date with friends of friends at, I forget now, either Bay St. Louis or Pass Christian. I remember our arrival and the blissful days that followed. The friends of friends were either rich or had found that way of living without money that seems rich. It had no equivalent on any of the shivery, shingled English strands where we had spent our childhood summers. Their beach houses had sandy surroundings which merged with each other and with the shore, about which they padded in permanently bare feet, unfussed by work, timetables, or set hours for lunch or dinner. Fires were lit, fish suppers cooked in the light of the flames, strong cocktails passed from hand to hand. Sunburnt boys and girls emerged out of the twilight in scraps of ragged clothing that might once have been sold over the counter at the Harvard Coop, beautiful, different, utterly uninterested in Europe or England or anywhere a dozen miles distant from Bay St. Louis. Occasionally a worried, responsible, barefoot adult padded through the throng, trying to organise entrants for tomorrow’s regatta.

Sonnenreise. I would, at twenty-three, willingly have settled for life in that corner of the Gulf Coast; but we were bidden onwards to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi Valley. In the delta back country, in compensation for Maurice’s insistence that we visit the Okefenokee Swamp, I took him for a day into the parishes of the Cajuns, the descendants of French settlers who had taken land there in the eighteenth century or come down the river from the north after the fall of French Canada. I wanted to practise my French. There was plenty of Frenchness about: severe, whitewashed burial chambers in graveyards surrounding Breton-looking churches, French names—Laforge, Labranche—on the mailboxes at entrances to roadside cabins. My French was a success—“Vous venez de Paris, Monsieur?”; perhaps it was not. They understood me. I did not understand them. French America was a long time ago.

The Mississippi Valley: oily meanders a mile wide between levees, long, ditched tracts of cultivation leading to the flat horizon, causeways over standing water. I remember the interminable passage across Lake Pontchartrain, where land disappears from sight in the centre. Somewhere hereabouts, where Afro-Americans were then a majority, we had our first encounters with black America. We gave a lift to two young black men who dropped the rocks they had been nerving themselves to throw at a car whose driver had rudely refused them a ride, eavesdropped in a country store on a courteous conversation about cotton between a white farmer and his grave, elderly black tenant, conspired with a respectable black salesman at a gas station over use of the lavatory—“I’ll wait until you white folks have gone on.” Unimaginable today the apartheid of American life only forty years ago. A little further on we encountered the issue of apartheid in tangible form. The Governor of Arkansas had refused admission to the Central High School in the state capital, Little Rock, to a black girl. There had been riots; he had called out the National Guard; there was the threat of more trouble. On an impulse we decided on a diversion, crossed the Mississippi and the vast rice fields that lay beyond, and drew up outside the school, an unpleasing concrete monolith. There was not a bayonet in sight, not even a state trooper. We ventured into Little Rock’s black quarter. I would like to record that we were hissed in the streets. On the contrary: I recall sensing a certain surprise on the part of the inhabitants at the sight of two young white men in seersucker suits tramping about between shop signs advertising palm-reading and hair-straightening but otherwise only friendliness, greeting, and concern that we had lost our way. There was trouble again later, which would eventually prompt the Supreme Court judgement ruling school segregation unlawful, but not a hint of it in the Little Rock we saw. What a quiet revolution America’s revolution in race relations was to prove; when I next visited the country in 1977, twenty years after Little Rock, it was as if to an India that had abolished caste.

Somewhere beyond Little Rock, Maurice and I parted. He was shortly due back in England. We had done much else that I have not recorded. We had visited the Tennessee Valley Authority, that Rooseveltian experiment in the public ownership of natural resources which liberal America then foresaw—visitors from England watching the mismanagement of the national economy by civil servants could have warned otherwise—as the way of the future. We had taken a long hike in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains, encountered rattlesnakes, met firefighters whose days were spent perched in their towers watching for fire, conceived some sense of the vastness of the American forest, without parallel in Europe—west of the Russian border—a brooding presence at the verge of settled land, not to be forgotten, never forgotten by me. We had visited black public housing, a black college—I cringe still at the memory of our white host joking that the students learnt Greek—grand, white-fenced horse farms where owners and trainers made pets of their lithe, black stable lads. We had stayed with an urbane academic family at the University of Virginia, savoured the serenity of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello outside Charlottesville, tiptoed the fringes of Virginian country-house life: pillared porticoes, broad acres, not much concern about bank balances, a distinct neurotic frisson over who would be coming to drinks.

We had seen a great deal of the Old South, the elegant summer retreats of Natchez, the New Orleans French Quarter, preserved plantations approached through hanging avenues of Spanish moss, sanitised slave cabins, most of the battlefields—the ostensible purpose of our great journey—of the Civil War: Bull Run, the Peninsula, Petersburg, Fort Sumter, Atlanta, Stone Mountain, Vicksburg. Scraps of memory of the Vicksburg bluff and the Petersburg crater were to help me, two or three years later, teach my class on the Civil War to British officer cadets at Sandhurst in sleepy afternoon halls of study.

We had also seen much of the new South—smoking oil refineries at the Mississippi mouth, a vast new automated glass factory somewhere in Arkansas where the handful of workers wore Hawaiian shirts and seemed possessed by holiday mood, courts of justice, city halls, public hospitals, the beginnings of what I suspect must have been one of the first interstates. New it may have been by contrast with the antebellum world of Gray and Blue; it struck me then, as the memory still does strike by comparison with the South I know today, as an unchanging and almost empty land, short of people, settlement, and traffic. I remember hours of scrub pine landscape, on roads untravelled by another car, advertisements for Burma Shave or pecan pie in towns miles ahead through which we had passed before realising they were intended stopping places, poor little farms, houses with porches bigger than living space, pretentious placenames, tired soil, weary people, dull hot skies, interminable, featureless distance. Oddly I came to like the South and still like it more than any other part of the United States. It retains for Europeans a trace of cultural familiarity, as the rest of the country does not. Sonnenreise: I have often tried to analyse why I should have a sense, however slight, of being at home in Dixie. Class system, yes; history, yes; but more important, I suspect, the lingering aftermath of defeat. Europe is a continent of defeated nations; even Britain, the offshore survivor, has had occasion to lick its wounds. Victorious America has never known the tread of occupation, the return of beaten men. The South is the exception. Its warrior spirit, which supplies the armed forces with a disproportionate flow of recruits, is a denial of the decision of 1865. The famous femininity of its women—not a myth, not to European men at least, who find them feminine as other American women are not—is a quality that comes from grandmothers who found a strength their men had lost, learnt to comfort, helped to forget, never, never said the unsayable thing. Pain is a dimension of old civilisations. The South has it. The rest of the United States does not.

I left the South with regret. I was to spend several months longer in the United States and learn much more about it, particularly about American family life, for, as a lone traveller, I was handed on from household to household through the Midwest and back to New England. I was to make long, solitary journeys by bus and train, stay in cheap hotels, fend off homosexual pestering—Maurice and I had already found that our English complexions, floppy haircuts, and, I suppose, air of innocence abroad made us a target—hope but fail to meet girls, fall into odd experiences. On a train somewhere in Ohio a kindly, armed army sergeant indicated a young black man whom he explained he was escorting to a military prison to serve time for a drugs conviction. In Tennessee, at the state fair, my host casually pointed out William Faulkner leaning on a piece of farm machinery. In New York my Union Square hosts, re-encountered, showed a surprising interest in trekking off to Bear Mountain to visit the sister of an English family friend; she was married to the film producer John Houseman, and it was only afterwards that I realised why an experimental scriptwriter would have wanted to meet him. I stayed with doctors, lawyers, an industrialist in Indiana who owned the town. In Washington I went to smart Georgetown cocktail parties full of clever young State Department people who were friends of my Rhodes scholar friends. In Boston I copy-edited manuscripts for a friend of a friend beginning in publishing at Little, Brown. At Cambridge I walked Harvard Yard with friends of other friends, stayed in Eliot House, from which so many of my Oxford American friends had come, at last talked into a lunchtime date an American girl, intelligent, Jewish, darkly beautiful, not the least interested in me.

My months alone in the United States were a succession of invitations, friendships, allurements, sudden elations, a proper culmination to any young man’s Sonnenreise. The odd English contemporary who had decided to chance his luck in the New World urged me to stay. I felt the temptation. After the mystery of the South, however, the spell had somehow gone. I felt my future life was in England, with parents, sisters, brother, contemporaries, known places and things. I was not brave enough for the great adventure of emigration. Perhaps, for all the uncertainty anyone of twenty-three must feel about the years ahead, I sensed that I enjoyed too many advantages in the old country to need to make a new life in the land of opportunity. As the American winter of 1957 began to cast the leaves from the trees, I took ship aboard the old Queen Elizabeth and sailed homeward.

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