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America, My New-Found-Land

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Rob Atkins
A 1956 Studebaker Power Hawk, Cedar Hill, New Mexico; photograph by Rob Atkins from Neon Mesa: Wonders of the Southwest, published by Bunker Hill

America is not everyone’s destination of choice. Few people wake up and say to themselves, “I’ve had it with Tajikistan—let’s move to America!” After the war my parents despaired of England (a widespread sentiment in those dreary years); but like so many of their British contemporaries they looked naturally to the Dominions. In the high streets of my childhood, grocers and butchers advertised New Zealand lamb and cheese, Australian mutton, and South African sherry—but American products were rare. However, plans to settle in New Zealand (and raise sheep?) were scotched by circumstance and my father’s TB scars. I was duly born in London and was nearly thirty before my first visit to America.

Everyone thinks they know the United States. What you “know,” of course, depends a lot on how old you are. For elderly Europeans, America is the country that arrived late, rescued them from their history, and irritated with its self-confident prosperity: “What’s wrong with the Yanks?” “They’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here”—or, in a London variant alluding to cheap ladies’ underwear provided under a wartime government scheme: “Have you heard about the new Utility drawers? One Yank and they’re off.”

For West Europeans raised in the 1950s, “America” was Bing Crosby, Hopalong Cassidy, and overvalued dollars flowing copiously from the plaid pants pockets of midwestern tourists. By the 1970s the image had shifted away from the cowboy West to the Manhattan canyons of Lieutenant Kojak. My generation enthusiastically replaced Bing with Elvis, and Elvis with Motown and the Beach Boys; but we had not the slightest idea what Memphis or Detroit—or southern California for that matter—actually looked like.

America was thus intensely familiar—and completely unknown. Before coming here, I had read Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and some of the extraordinary short-story writers of the South. Between this and a diet of 1940s-era film noir, I certainly had visual images of the United States. But nothing cohered. Moreover, born like most Europeans in a country I could cross on foot in a matter of days, I had absolutely no grasp of the sheer scale and variety of the place.

I came to the US for the first time in 1975. Upon landing in Boston, I was supposed to call a Harvard friend with whom we were to stay—but the pay phone required a dime, a coin I could not even identify (Kojak never used them). I was bailed out by a friendly cop, much amused at my ignorance of American coinage.

My English wife and I were planning to drive across the country to Davis, California, where I had been invited to teach for a year. I had thought to buy a used VW Bug, but the first salesman I met talked me into a 1971 Buick LeSabre: gold, automatic, nearly eighteen feet long and capable of ten miles per gallon with a following wind. The first thing we did with the Buick was drive to a pizzeria. In England pizzas were still scarce—and small: a large would have been seven inches across and a half-inch deep. Thus, when the boy behind the counter asked what size, we responded unhesitatingly: “large”—and ordered two of them. We were somewhat nonplussed to be presented with two huge cardboard boxes, each containing a sixteen-inch Chicago-style deep dish meal for ten: my first intimation of the American obsession with size.

Short on funds, we headed west—stopping only to refuel ourselves and the ravenous Buick. The first American motel I ever stayed in was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The rates seemed so implausibly low that I tentatively inquired whether we might upgrade to a room with a shower. The desk clerk, after pretending not to understand my accent, explained with undisguised disdain that “all our rooms got showers.” To a European ear this was implausible: it was not until we saw it that we actually believed him. Intimation #2: Americans have a thing about clean.

By the time we reached Davis, via Rapid City, South Dakota (“Where the Range War ended”) and Reno, we had acquired considerable respect for deep Americana, if not for American cars. This is a “big” country—big sky, big mountains, big fields—and beautiful withal. Even the incontrovertibly ugly aspects are somehow domesticated by their setting: the gas stations and cheap motels that stagger for miles west of Amarillo would spell doom to any European landscape (their Italian counterparts outside Milan are grotesque), but in the greater scheme of West Texas they blend romantically into the evening haze.

Since that first transcontinental drive I have crossed the country seven times. Old established settlements—Cheyenne, Knoxville, Savannah—have continuity on their side. But who could love present-day Houston, Phoenix, or Charlotte? Desolate heaps of office buildings and intersections, they bustle misleadingly from nine to five before dying at dusk. Ozymandias-like, such exurbations will sink back into the marshland or desert whence they arose once the water runs out and gasoline prices them out of existence.

Then there are the ancient coastal settlements, reassuringly grounded in the country’s colonial past. Penniless once in New Orleans (mugged in a laundromat), I got an offer to drive a car to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a first-team linebacker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The vehicle was a long, lean American muscle car, the hood depicting a grinning tiger spread lasciviously across a fur coat. Predictably, we got stopped every fifty miles: the motorcycle cop who pulled us over would swagger up to the window, ready to dress down some overconfident dude in his speeding pimpmobile…only to discover a little Cambridge tutor and his terrified wife. After a while we got to enjoying the effect.

Once, in North Platte, Nebraska, I experienced a negative epiphany. In the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from anything resembling a city and thousands of miles from the nearest salt water: if I felt cut off, surrounded by eight-foot-high fields of corn, what must it be like to live in such a place? No wonder most Americans are profoundly uninterested in what the rest of the world is doing or what it thinks of them. Middle Kingdom? The Chinese didn’t know the half of it.

The little towns and settlements dotting the landscape from the Mississippi delta to southern California present a sobering picture. Driving northwest from Dallas toward remotest Decatur on the Texan plateau, each settlement would be represented by a gas station or two, a dowdy (often shuttered) motel, the occasional convenience store, and little clusters of trailer housing. But there was nothing to suggest community.

Except the church. To a European eye, as often as not, it was little more than a warehouse topped by a giant cross. But the building stood out among the strip malls and ribbon housing. Religion is not just the only game in town—it is often the sole link to anything recognizably social, to a higher striving. If I lived in such a place, I too would join the Elect.

But in my line of business I would not have to. By far the best thing about America is its universities. Not Harvard, Yale, e tutti quanti: though marvelous, they are not distinctively American—their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities. You drive for miles across a godforsaken midwestern scrubscape, pockmarked by billboards, Motel 6s, and a military parade of food chains, when—like some pedagogical mirage dreamed up by nineteenth-century English gentlemen—there appears…a library! And not just any library: at Bloomington, the University of Indiana boasts a 7.8-million-volume collection in more than nine hundred languages, housed in a magnificent double-towered mausoleum of Indiana limestone.

A little over a hundred miles northwest across another empty cornscape there hoves into view the oasis of Champaign-Urbana: an unprepossessing college town housing a library of over ten million volumes. Even the smallest of these land grant universities—the University of Vermont at Burlington, or Wyoming’s isolated campus at Laramie—can boast collections, resources, facilities, and ambitions that most ancient European establishments can only envy.1
The contrast between the university libraries of Indiana or Illinois and the undulating fields almost visible from their windows illustrates the astonishing scale and variety of the American inland empire: something you cannot hope to grasp from afar. A few miles south of Bloomington’s cosmopolitan academic community lies the heartland of the old Ku Klux Klan, much as the peerless literary holdings of the University of Texas sit implausibly amidst the insularity and prejudice of the hill country that surrounds them. To the outsider, these are unsettling juxtapositions.

Americans take such paradoxes in their stride. It is hard to imagine a European university recruiting a professor—as I was once encouraged to consider a university near Atlanta—on the grounds that the nearby international airport would allow you to “escape” with ease. A displaced European academic, beached in Aberystwyth, would avoid drawing attention to the fact. Thus, whereas Americans are shamelessly confessional—“How on earth did I end up in Cheyenne State U.?”—a comparably isolated Brit would bleat mournfully of the sabbatical he spent at Oxford.

My own perspective is still colored by that year in Davis. Originally the agricultural extension of the University of California, precariously perched amid the rice paddies of the Sacramento River delta—halfway between San Francisco and nowhere in particular—UC Davis now boasts 3.3 million volumes, a world-class research faculty, and the country’s leading green energy program. Some of the most interesting colleagues I know have spent their lives in Davis. At the time, however, this was a mystery to me: the year completed, I retreated cautiously to the Olde English familiarity of Cambridge. But nothing was quite the same. Cambridge itself felt somehow reduced and constricting: the pancake-flat Fenland as remote as any rice paddy. Everywhere is somewhere else’s nowhere.

John Donne describes his mistress as an “America”: a new-found-land awaiting erotic discovery. But America herself is a mistress, rebuffing and seducing by turns—even in overweight and boastful middle age she retains a certain allure. For jaded Europeans, the contradictions and curiosities are part of that allure. It is an old-new land engaged in perennial self-discovery (usually at others’ expense): an empire sheathed in preindustrial myths, dangerous and innocent.

I was seduced. At first, indecisively, I lurched back and forth across the Atlantic: bestowing my ambivalent affections on both shores. My forebears emigrated of necessity: from fear and destitution. Having no choice, they experienced little doubt. I was a voluntary emigrant and thus could tell myself that my choice was temporary or even revocable. For a long time I toyed with the option of returning to teach in Europe—but it was in America that I felt most European. I was hyphenated: two decades after landing in Boston, I had become an American.

—This piece is a part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.

  1. 1

    By way of comparison, the University Library in Cambridge, England, boasts just seven million volumes; the University of Vienna (founded in 1365) just 6.6 million.

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