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Love It or Leave It!

Imagining America

by Peter Conrad
Oxford University Press, 319 pp., $12.95

Englishman has hard eyes. He is great by the back of his head.

—Emerson, Journals

O. Shenandoah, O, Niagara! In a text that bristles like the quills on a pestered porcupine, Peter Conrad, a young English critic of music and literature, fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, has written a book called Imagining America. It is easy to read, and yet a torture to unravel. This is not due to the absence of footnotes, bibliography, or to the very reduced index—that is the least of it. The most of it is a great fluency of style, a military confidence, an extraordinary range of intimidation that sweeps over the country, America, and a good many English writers, the two in collision being the subject of the book.

Imagining America follows a number of English persons on their journey here: Mrs. Trollope, Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Oscar Wilde, Rupert Brooke, Kipling, H. G. Wells, Stevenson, Lawrence. In the latter part of the book, Conrad “examines” in the surgical sense the deformities of three gifted English authors who chose to remain: Auden, Huxley, and Isherwood.

Unusual conjectures, connections that move from text to interpretation with the speed and force of a bullet in transit, dazzle and brilliance that often exceed the fluency of the authors themselves: these uncommon gifts in alliance with a nervy vehemence of tone make Imagining America a daunting addition to “Anglo-American Studies.” We, it appears, have much to answer for, and they, especially the later writers in exile, have a great deal more.

The putative thesis of the book is not striking and, since the book itself is very striking, the thesis is only in part a suitable frame. The brief statement of intention at the beginning and end is rather like a bit of brown-paper wrapping that disguises the volatile materials within.

Before America could be discovered, it had to be imagined…. Geographically, America was imagined in advance of its discovery as an arboreal paradise, Europe’s dream of verdurous luxury. After that discovery, the political founders were its inventors.

The passage of time from the Victorians to the present does not find the country, America, in a condition more gratifying to the senses and the spirit; instead, the visitors themselves “re-imagine” our obscure or glaring deficiencies into amusements, curiosities, or personal escapes. “Americans tolerate and even abet this contradictory European fantasizing about them. Loyal to the ideal pretensions of their society, they’re as much prisoners of their millennial self-image as they are of the prejudicial images Europeans continue to inflict upon them.” Thus, the scene opens.

The ending, after the clash of text, person, and Conrad’s rhetoric, is a forgiving downfall.

America is ample and generous enough to tolerate all these impositions on it, and various enough to adapt to all these transformations of it. The moral of this book, like that of America, lies not in its unity but in its diversity.

This benign accommodation, so general in its application to history, would scarcely be worth the ticket. The book, freely speculative, does not have a moral, but is nevertheless rich in statements with a moralizing tone. It is not easy to separate tone and statement, paraphrase and text, opinion and illustration.

At home [England] you are assigned a surrounding world by the circumstances of your birth; you don’t invent a reality for yourself but inherit one, and exist in a society which prides itself on having restricted the range of imaginative choices. A civilized society, according to Matthew Arnold, is one in which the center prevails, in which metropolitan standards constrain the regions, and artists club together in a clique at that center.” As for America, it is “centerless, not a claustrophobic, centripetal society…but a chaos of disparate realities.” The English writers, grinding their heels in the dust of Vermont, New York, New Mexico, California, and so on, are not experiencing a place fixed by history and tradition. They are caught instead in a sort of whirl and flow, which they identify and use as they will. “Lawrence’s New Mexico is not the same as Huxley’s, nor is Huxley’s California the same as Isherwood’s.”

Conrad’s America, as he extracts it from his literary texts, is hospitable to interpretation, exploitation, and finally to therapeutic manipulation, but its spacious indefiniteness is not hospitable to literature, and not to the novel in particular. The problem of the novel appears in the early pages that announce Peter Conrad’s themes and the direction of his thoughts. The refractory landscape and the people dwelling in it are not agreeable matter for the English novelists in their transformation of experience and idea concerning America—perhaps, perhaps, that is what Conrad meant? In any case:

The Victorians assume America to be slovenly and backward, unworthy of the novel’s social graces and subtleties of observation. Later writers admit the novel’s irrelevance to America, but they suggest alternatives. In Kipling’s case, the alternative is epic, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s it’s chivalric romance…. In Wells’s case as in Huxley’s the alternative is science fiction….

England prides itself on having restricted the range of imaginative choices”1—many impediments to agreement here, intensified by the accent of the self-evident. “Victorians assume America to be unworthy of the novel’s social graces and subtleties of observation….” Mrs. Trollope and Dickens did not find in the America of the 1830s and 1840s a commendable accumulation of graces and subtleties, but there is no evidence that they considered the creation of Victorian novels, on the English model, a task for the Republic or that they were vexed by the country’s unsuitability for fiction.

Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners may be said to have squeezed the American lemon very profitably. Her book is a masterpiece of novelistic scenes, dialogues, and dramatic conflict between herself and her subject. She is the only writer in Imagining America to have discovered herself here. Mrs. Trollope, with her intrepid talents, her great ambition and need, transformed her chagrin and her frazzled nerves into a classic. She, more than any other of the travelers in Conrad’s book, confronted America in a gambler-emigrant frame of mind—that is, in a confused mood of hope and panic. Her failed Emporium in Cincinnati shows that for all her “refined taste,” she understood schlock and kitsch and was drawn in her commercial dream toward the outsized. (A premonition of the World’s Largest Drugstore in LA Aldous Huxley is later scolded for tolerating?) The front of the Emporium, facing Third Street, was “taken in part from the Mosque of St. Athanase, in Egypt,” and the front facing south was an Egyptian colonnade formed with columns modeled after those “in the temple of Apollinopolis at Etfou, as exhibited in Denon’s Egypt.” The large rotunda was to be topped by a huge Turkish crescent.2

It is true that Dickens’s caricature of America in Martin Chuzzlewit testifies to the author’s loathing of the country, but it does not testify to Conrad’s idea of the Victorian novel’s “social graces.” Instead the intrusion of the American theme indicates Dickens’s anarchic, daring, inventive practice of the possibilities of Victorian fiction.

Anthony Trollope’s North America, more studious and less journalistic than the other two Victorian accounts, is annoyed by much, but he does not seem as a traveler to be in pursuit of an extension of his novelistic world. He had a tangled view of literature in America and knew something, if not much, about it. Both of the Trollopes were political conservatives. “I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions,” Mrs. Trollope writes about Americans at the end. She lays these vivacious negatives at the door of Equality.

Later writers admit the novel’s irrelevance to America….” Here the given example is Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which doesn’t admit anything since it is not a document by a literary critic but is instead a “worked up” creative act, which grew out of Kipling’s cold, litigious years in New England. Conrad’s verbs are an elastic—they stretch in order to confine.

Niagara Falls, a phenomenon, is for Conrad an interesting measure of temperament, English, and tourist obligation, American. His chapter on the great resistant cataract is thoroughly original and diverting, but also, as it swims along, accusing, not to the waters, but to some of those who made the trip and, worse, to those who did not.

Dickens rendered Niagara in strenuous prose: “What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths; what Heavenly promise glistened in those angels’ tears….” Oscar Wilde, observing the honeymooning couples, said: “The sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the first if not the keenest disappointments of American married life.” H. G. Wells was more interested in the dynamos of the power company than in the Cave of the Winds. Rupert Brooke wearied of the comparative statistics that established the supremacy of the Falls and wrote that the real interest was not to be found there but in “the feeling of colossal power and of unintelligible disaster caused by the plunge of the vast body of water.” But this acceptable sentiment, written in 1913, two years before Brooke died in the war, becomes the occasion for Conrad’s own leaping: “The eager self-sacrifice of the waters anticipates the reaction of Brooke and his generation to the war, which excited them not because they wanted to defend a cause but because it promised them heroic self-extinction.” Anticipates, excited, promised—not only the rushed young man sending back his dispatches, but his entire generation.

Still at Niagara: “Objects in America aren’t determined by history or enmeshed by association like those of Europe.” For the Victorians Niagara was a “prodigy of nature,” but for later writers “imagining the object comes to mean canceling it out.” On it goes:

This is why the neglect of Niagara by the later writers in this book [Auden, Isherwood, and Huxley] is itself significant, because it is a consequence of the imagination’s meditative withdrawal from observation. The later subjects of this book don’t even bother to practice imaginative distortion of America’s physical reality, for they are simply incurious about it.

No matter that Niagara has suffered a drastic falling of its “ratings” and that the incuriosity of sophisticated travelers and American writers is too widespread for “significant” rebuke. In 1914, Bertrand Russell said, “Niagara gave me no emotion”—said “with priggish philosophical rectitude” in Conrad’s disposition of the remark.

In the ordering of the chapter there seems to be some sympathy for the sublimity of the accident of nature which America shares with Canada. Conrad seems to prod the visitors to take leave of themselves and offer an appropriate version or vision. Few are sufficient to it: Sarah Bernhardt wants to harness the Falls to her “capricious egotism.” No similar unspoiled challenge occurs again, for any of the writers. A “nightmarish” America, of “nonchalant vacancy” and “savagery” and “moral amateurism” lies ahead.

  1. 1

    All italics in quotations from Conrad are mine.

  2. 2

    From the introduction by Donald Smalley to Domestic Manners of the Americans (Peter Smith, 1949).

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