Across the Pond

By Terry Eagleton

As a Canadian, you soon learn certain rules for talking with Americans. Among the first of these is that you don’t talk to Americans about America, at least if you have anything negative to say.

There’s nothing new about this. Alexis de Tocqueville realized it when he visited in 1831-32, and Charles Dickens learned the same lesson when he published his American Notes for General Circulation in 1842.

British academic critic Terry Eagleton, who has spent a lot of time in the U.S., is the latest European intellectual to offer his thoughts on America for public consideration, and he makes no secret of his debt to Tocqueville and Dickens. Indeed, he calls on their names so many times you start to wonder if he thinks much has changed since the nineteenth century. According to Eagleton, American English, particularly in its public or political form, is in some ways “the language of top-hatted, frock-coated Victorian England,” and the American belief in material progress helps make the U.S. “a thoroughly Victorian kind of place.”

Eagleton’s method, again following Tocqueville, is to paint with broad strokes, making generous use of stereotypes (a sort of cultural shorthand that he apologizes in advance for but which is hard to avoid), and frequent comparisons between the English, Americans, and Irish (Eagleton lives in Dublin and a previous book, The Truth About the Irish, was a similar examination of national myths and identity).

There is a lot to find fault with, even if you weren’t born in the U.S.A. As always there is a glibness to Eagleton, a tendency to rhetorically oversell every point he makes. His stereotypes often turn into straw men, and in any event the problem with stereotypes in a book like this isn’t that they’re unfair or inaccurate but that they’re clichés and don’t tell us anything new.

More troubling, because they colour some of the sweeping judgements being made, are the weaknesses in Eagleton’s grip on history and pop culture. It won’t do, for example, to assert that “if an American and a Briton were together in a prisoner-of-war camp, the Briton would fade gradually away with a plucky little grin and the American would escape.” In case Eagleton only knows the movie, no Americans made the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III. Steve McQueen’s part was entirely fictional.

Perhaps even worse, Eagleton claims that the British aren’t as funny as Americans because “nothing in their media today can outshine” American television comedies like The Office.

The Office was, of course, originally a British show. Has Eagleton not heard of Ricky Gervais?

This said, there are plenty of moments to be enjoyed and some keen observations made along the way. The reason Americans are so hard to talk to about America is that for them the nation is a religion, and Eagleton, whose bent is naturally toward more spiritual and philosophical musings, is particularly good on American vs. British concepts of “liberty,” various manifestations of the American “will,” and the damaging effects the expression of that will has had on American culture and individual Americans.

And despite the reliance on stereotypes, Eagleton doesn’t lose sight of individual Americans. He recognizes the paradox that in America “individuality” is a general attribute of the national identity. American exceptionalism extends to the level of the individual, and everyone in America is special by virtue of being a citizen.

While on the whole Eagleton thinks that this is a good thing, he also gently suggests that the myth of exceptionalism can lead to all kinds of disasters. Remaining optimistic, however, he thinks that America will be able to find a fix for any mess it makes, at home or abroad.

Such, anyway, is the American dream.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, August 4 2013.

%d bloggers like this: