by Peter Conrad
Oxford University Press, 319 pp., $12.95
Englishman has hard eyes. He is great by the back of his head.
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 …