ACROSS THE POND: AN ENGLISHMAN’S VIEW OF AMERICA
By Terry Eagleton
Norton, $24.95, 192 pages
In 1983, Terry Eagleton made the life of every student of English literature easier with the publication of his seminal “Literary Theory: An Introduction.” He deftly describes the complex development of this subject throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries in a single volume. As one of those students, I am very excited to review his new book, but I can’t quite escape the feeling that I’m breaking some sort of rule. After all, I have to squint in order to see him comfortably perched atop the ladder on which I am thrashing around, somewhere near the bottom.
Thirty years (and a few dozen publications) later, Mr. Eagleton returns with his characteristically lucid sophistication and fully engaged sense of humor. Only this time, whether to the delight or dismay of the reader, there is no mention of hermeneutics, semiotics or (gasp!) post-structuralism. Rather, in “Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America,” we have a thoroughly unacademic and informal discussion of the simultaneously small and gaping differences between the United States and England. Even the Irish aren’t safe from his partly scathing and partly affectionate observations. He is an Englishmen, married to an American, living in Ireland; in other words, perfectly situated for just such a project.
He begins with a discussion of his inevitable use of stereotypes, concluding that they “need not deny that we are all distinctive individuals.”
“It is just that, like medical textbooks or prayers for the dying, they focus on what we have in common.”
He recognizes that people, especially Americans, may not appreciate this sentiment because of our firm devotion to individuality and personal rights. But Mr. Eagleton demonstrates his point about stereotypes and his acute sense of irony by observing that “if Americans jealously safeguard their individuality, then this, ironically, is a general fact about them.” From the end of this short introduction, no punches are pulled in his “roast”-like romp through the cultural oddities of the Anglo-American corner of the world.
Some of the commentary is rather biting, such as his discussion of America’s endemic obesity issue. He suggests parochialism as a partial source, writing that “many of them [Americans] have no idea that the planet is not populated by people just like themselves. Nor could some of them fit into the aircraft seats that might allow them to find out.” But this is not a one-sided affair and his criticism is not limited to this side of the Atlantic; Mr. Eagleton agrees with Oscar Wilde when he says that “the British have a great future behind them.” And for the British, whose glumness is contrasted with the optimism of Americans, “even the golden age was not all it is cracked up to be.”
Most of the observations Mr. Eagleton makes are not, however, calculated to insult. His chapter on the differences between English English and American English is filled with the types of hilarious mistakes and idiosyncrasies that anyone who has spent time with an Englishman will immediately recognize. For example, he laments our appropriation and misuse of the word “awesome” and the fact that we are “straight, honest and plain-speaking” without the proper respect for the use of irony. Another of his favorite targets is the spirit of the American Dream: “Americans are great believers in the fraudulent doctrine that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough.” He then goes on to wonder why we have not used this peculiar power to will away our comparatively high rates of poverty, incarceration, teenage pregnancy and social exclusion. By contrast, he cites the British saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and then for God’s sake give it up; there’s no point in making a bloody fool of yourself.”
Our politics inevitably fall victim to Mr. Eagleton’s ferocious wit. Not everyone will appreciate the political commentary of a man whose recent publication “Why Marx was Right” displays his left-leaning tendencies. But this does not mean his opinion is not worth considering. He provides a distinctly outside perspective that, in one fell swoop, diminishes the political differences that seem to plague this country and its governing process. He writes, “in fact, the United States is a one-party state. There is the Democratic capitalist party and the Republican capitalist party. The diversity of political opinions hardly rivals the variety of candy bars.” To those who think President Obama is a socialist, take it from a Marxist that our love affair with capitalism is not in danger.
Despite its unacademic and untheoretical nature, this book does present itself in true Eagleton-like fashion. Beneath the stereotypes and the jokes, there are many poignant and acute observations that, if paid attention to, have an important lesson to teach.
Maxwell Sater, a senior at the University of Maryland, is an intern at The Washington Times.