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Why I Love America

A British journalist finds freedom across the pond.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In praise of gadgets, manners, women, and freedom

I had reported from some twenty-four countries before I set foot in America. I will never forget the first shock—even after having been in every country from the Sudan to South Africa—at realizing that I was in another place entirely, a New World. In the casbah of Algiers during the first referendum called by de Gaulle in 1959, when the women hurrying down the steep streets to vote for the first time pulled their yashmaks around their faces as they passed a man (which seemed to me only to make their dark eyes more fascinating), I was still in the Old World, however strange it was. But here in America it was all new.

I had been in the country about eight years, and was living in Houston, when a Texan friend asked me one evening: "Why do you like living in America? I don't mean why you find it interesting—why you want to write about it—but why you like living here so much." After only a moment's reflection, I replied, "It's the first time I've felt free." In the nine years that have passed since then, I have often reflected on that answer, and have found no reason to change it. What I mean by it is part of the story to be told here.

Other memories come to mind. One spring day, shortly after my arrival, I was walking down the long, broad street of a suburb, with its sweeping front lawns (all that space), its tall trees (all that sky), and its clumps of azaleas (all that color). The only other person on the street was a small boy on a tricycle. As I passed him, he said "Hi!"—just like that. No four-year-old boy had ever addressed me without an introduction before. Yet here was this one, with his cheerful "Hi!" Recovering from the culture shock, I tried to look down stonily at his flaxen head, but instead, involuntarily, I found myself saying in return: "Well—hi!" He pedaled off, apparently satisfied. He had begun my Americanization.

"Hi!" As I often say—for Americans do not realize it— the word is a democracy. (I come from a country where one can tell someone's class by how they say "Hallo!" or "Hello!" or "Hullo," or whether they say it at all.) But anyone can say "Hi!" Anyone does. Shortly after my encounter with the boy, I called on the then Suffragan Bishop of Washington. Did he greet me as the Archbishop of Canterbury would have done? No. He said, "Hi, Henry!" I put it down to an aberration, an excess of Episcopalian latitudinarianism. But what about my first meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States, the Emperor of the Free World, before whom, like a Burgher of Calais, a halter round my neck, I would have sunk to my knees, pleading for a loan for my country? He held out the largest hand in Christendom, and said, "Hi, Henry!"

Small anecdotes? But I wish to suggest that it is there, in the small anecdotes, that the secret lies. America has—if one opens oneself to it—a bewitching power. From the very beginning the stranger feels its influence as a loosening. At first this can be disquieting. After all, one is not in an exotic land, where the differences are immediately striking, easy to see, so that one may be fascinated without really being touched by them. Yet from the beginning in America one feels this power, unsettling all that one had thought was familiar, fixed by the ages. To some—I have known them—it is alarming. For there do come moments when one realizes, more than in any other country not one's own, that here one may be being remade. If here history still invents itself, then here also, still, one may invent the future. But suppose that means that one may also invent oneself? Max Ascoli, the Italian Jew who fled from Fascism and founded and edited in America a remarkable magazine. The Reporter, once wrote: "It did not cause me any trouble to become an Italian, but my becoming an American is my own work." Every immigrant will know what he means; millions are still working on it in their own lives.

I remember also the time when I still resisted the very power of America to attract. After I had been here in Washington, D.C., a little while, I noticed one day that all the Americans who had befriended me were preparing to participate in some ritual, and that I was not invited. It was the Fourth of July. I presumed that they were being tactful: How could they ask me to celebrate a British defeat? So I accepted an invitation from Patrick O'Donovan, then the Washington correspondent of The Observer. What could we do on the Fourth? We looked at the television listings, and were delighted to find that there was a midday rerun of the original Scarlet Pimpernel, with Leslie Howard as Sir Percy Blakeney. We may have been defeated by the Americans, but one Englishman, single-handedly, had outwitted Robespierre's police. So we sat with our elbows on the lunch table, watching Leslie Howard be English, brave, and debonair, and even when the table leaf gave way with a crash, it did not interrupt Sir Percy or our absorption. Later in the afternoon, Patrick—who had been a strapping young Irish Guards officer during the Second World War, as handsome (as they say) as the devil—opened the screen door into his Georgetown garden, and peed. "It does one good," he proclaimed, "on the Fourth of July, to piss on American soil." But he let in an enormous bug— one of those gigantic bugs that make it all the more inexplicable why Americans like barbecuing on their patios in the fetid summer—which then banged from wall to wall, sometimes wheeling to dive-bomb us. "You shouldn't have pissed on America," I said to Patrick, “George III tried to piss on it, and look what happened to him." But Patrick was by now cowering behind the couch—all sixfoot-four Irish Guards of him—shouting to his wife, "'Mione, 'Mione, HELP!'" She came downstairs, took one pitying look at her brave Britishers, got a can of Raid, and destroyed the American intruder. Patrick got up from behind the couch, drew himself up again to his full height, and said as if he were addressing his troops in the desert, "Henry, I cannot bear the tropics." By the time the fireworks began on the mall—"More shots to be heard round the world, I suppose," grumbled Patrick—we had the Dutch courage to ignore them. We had drunk our way—what else for exiles to do?—through the Fourth of July.

But as I stayed and felt America drawing me to it, I inevitably began to think of the others who have come. The curiosity about the country which first brought and kept me here scarcely entitles me to claim that I have shared the experience of most immigrants. I have no right to make it seem as if I came here traveling steerage, like the political refugees or those who simply had neither food nor hope in their native lands. But I will say this about the Statue of Liberty. It was an act of imagination, when the French proposed raising the money for it to celebrate the American Revolution, to choose such a site, and not Washington or Mount Vernon or Philadelphia, and to put on it that inscription, recalling not the English colonists who made the Revolution, but the millions upon millions if others who have come here since. They were drawn by the promise of this land; the land has performed for many more of them than it has failed; and they in turn have helped remake the nation. And still they come.

The story of the immigration cannot be told bloodlessly. It cannot be drained of what Osbert Sitwell caught so well, in this hauntingly lovely passage from his The Four Continents, published in 1954: "New York, with all its faults, is yet the greatest and the most moving of modern cities. ...built by refugees to shelter and protect their dreams on alien soil. ...For that is what it is, a metropolis of dreams realized and unrealized ... dreams of every age and intensity. ...So when in the small hours you open the window, and the cool of the darkness flows into the heated room, it is on a beautiful and improbable city of dreams that you look, some tragic, some naive, but many of them practicable and to be achieved in the future, near or distant, by the labors of these same dreamers when awake during the working day. Thus in the main the dreams will be fulfilled, and the hopes that prevail over fears are justified." How can one lose the sense that something quite miraculous has happened in the making of one nation from so many different peoples?

No other immigration into any other country has had anything like the same meaning for the rest of the world, for those who did not migrate, lifting the imagination of the world to horizons beyond even the expanse of this continent. The name of America still lends to countless millions its own dreams for them to dream themselves.

An English economist once said that it was America that had taught the world that it need not starve. Consider that. It cannot be denied. The achievements of American agriculture are one of the wonders of the modern world. Americans consume each year only a third of the wheat which American farmers produce; there is no other valley in the world which has been made, by irrigation, as fertile as the Central Valley of California. But it is not only such facts and figures that tell the wonder. One must look down the vastness of the Middle West, as the English poet Louis MacNeice did in 1940, "astonished by its elegance from the air. Elegance is the word for it—enormous plains of beautifully inlaid rectangles, the grain running different ways, walnut, satinwood or oatcake, the whole of it tortoiseshelled with copses and shadows of clouds . ..."It is common for the American when he is in Europe to gasp at the hedgerows of England or the terraced vineyards of Italy, kept for centuries. But the gasp of the Englishman is no less when he gazes on a continent, immense in scale, still fabulous in its diversity, which not only is cultivated but has by its cultivation been given its own coherence; which unlike Europe has been made one. Who hut the Americans would, so early, have made the Great Plains yield so much—those semi-arid land which even they, at first, called "the Great American Desert"?

But let us return to small things. If America was to produce, it had also to invent. The English critic T.R. Fyvel once told a story of a friend, also English, who had "found himself for a fantastic weekend in a society of Texas millionaires who whizzed around in their private aircraft, dropping in on parties hundreds of miles away." The friend found this unexpectedly refreshing. He was even more impressed when he saw the children of his host "buzzing around in special little pedal motor cars which were air conditioned." But one night his Texan millionaire host turned to him and said something like: "You know. Bob, I ask myself if our machine civilization isn't shot all to hell." The Englishman, horrified, burst out to his host: "Don't have those decadent thoughts! Don't have any thoughts! Leave them to us—while you stay just as you are!" I understand his response. There seems to be nothing, however fanciful, that the American, with his unflagging inventive genius, will not attempt.

Matthew Arnold was amazed at the warmth of American houses. "We are full of plans," he wrote to his daughter from Philadelphia in 1883, "for putting an American stove into the Cottage," when he got hack to England. In 1912 Arnold Bennett was amazed that, whereas "the European telephone is a toy," in America it was regarded as an indispensable convenience for everyone. In 1942 Sir Philip Biggs was amazed by the supermarket, "where you grab what you want and wheel it to the cashier in steel perambulators made for the purpose," and leave "laden with a variety of food, beyond the range of English households even in peacetimes, from the A & F stores." (Twenty-three years later, on my very first morning in America, the wife of the English friend with whom I was staying took me, not to the Washington Monument, but to a supermarket—just to stare.) In 1963 T. H. White, who made a lecture tour in his old age, accompanied by the eighteen-year-old sister-in-law of Julie Andrews as "my secretary, but really as a protectress," was amazed at the change machine in the automat restaurant on a train: "In went a dollar bill which was inspected and out come [sic] four silver quarters, Why couldn't we put in hits of newspaper cut to the right size?" But he found more to wonder at: "In Long Island fishermen can buy worms from slot machines"; and again: "I also learned of tab-opening cans. You can open a beer can and, it is to be hoped, you will soon be able to open any can, without a tin opener." They were all responding to something I could not imagine America without. How I have come to take it all for granted was brought home to me not long ago, when I was sifting in my house with a friend visiting from England. It was a quiet afternoon in early summer, the windows were open, I could hear the birds chirping in the garden. My friend suddenly exclaimed: "How can you bear to live in all this noise?" What noise? "All this noise in the house," he said. "Something is always switching itself off or on, humming or purring." He had destroyed my own peace, for I noticed it from then on. It is no wonder that America consumes so much energy. The electric gadgetry in an American home makes it its own Disney World. But to most Englishmen it is the physical evidence of a society that does not tire of innovation; which by its inventiveness still seems to keep the future open; and in whose inventiveness ordinary people find convenience.

The inventiveness and gadgetry of the American reflects the spirit of a society which echoes the song: "It ain't necessarily so." If houses are insufferably cold, you invent a stove, and then you invent central heating; and if anyone writes in to say that the Romans had central heating, the important point is that the common man in Rome did not have it. Ben Franklin invented a prefabricated stove which could be produced for the common man; such a stove in Europe at the time would have been produced by craftsmen for the few. But then it has always been the American way as well, when faced with any injustice or harshness in this society, to say that "it ain't necessarily so," and to do something about it. If ever this spirit is allowed to languish, whether in the invention of things or the improvement of its society, America will have ceased to be what it means to the rest of the world.

When the cafeteria was first invented, the English responded to it with delight, from Clare Sheridan first being taken to one by Upton Sinclair in 1921, when she followed him as "he first took a metal tray from a column of trays," to S.P.B. Mais's description in 1933:

You put your tray on a slide, help yourself as you rush along to orange juice, puffed rice, eggs, rolls, coffee, marmalade, or whatever it is you eat for breakfast, and when you reach the end of the counter a girl checks your loaded tray with lightning calculation, says "Thirty cents"—or whatever it is—and you take your tray and eat your breakfast at a table. The whole time spent in getting your food is thirty seconds.

The cafeteria has, of course, spread all over the world. But what these first encounters tell, above all, is of their convenience, and the fact that this convenience is liberating, as electrical gadgets (or Clarence Birdseye's invention, frozen foods) are liberating in the home. What they tell secondly is that these conveniences are not for a privileged few. Like the Franklin stove or the Ford Model T, these amenities were meant for all.

What I am trying to show is that, to other Englishmen besides myself, there is a meaning to the material progress of America which has traveled, and is still traveling, to the rest of the world, beyond the physical benefits which it bestows. It was a critic of fastidious taste and judgment, Cyril Connolly, who said in 1952:

All American influence on Europe, however vulgar, brings with it an improvement in the standard of living and the dissipation of certain age-old desires. Should Europe oppose this influence? Europe, which has destroyed so many exotic civilizations, without even providing them with the democratic optimism which America brings with its films, its gadgets, and its lingua franca, the demotic language which obliterates all class distinctions.

But Connolly left out the most significant American influence of all: the spread of the manners of a society which has always been more informal, less stiff, less bound by convention, than any other in the world; in which a person is accepted, as Thackeray said during one of his visits, for what he is. The impetus to informality in America is, at least in part, the source of one of the most striking changes in our century: the change in the relationship between one individual human being and another, and so in their relationship to their society.

The informality is one characteristic which at first both jarred and drew me. By far the most infectious account of this characteristic of America was given by Dom Hubert van Zeller, an English monk who often preached retreats in both countries, and enjoyed America, but was still astonished at this scene:

In a hail at Denver I had the privilege of being listened to by upwards of six hundred nuns, assembled from different communities, all of whom were eating ices off the ends of sticks. The distribution of the ices, effectively conducted by a member of the home team, took place during the earlier phase of my address, so from the elevated position which I occupied on the platform, I was able to lay bets with myself as to which religious order would finish first.

This is the public informality—often noticed in Congress, in the courts—but the training begins early, with the freedom given the American child.

The children, like the informality, can at first jar. But the true mark of American society is that its informality forms its own patterns and codes. Although the outsider cannot at first detect it, there is a rhythm of American life. This rhythm is a constant improvisation, a flexibility that will accommodate the wishes and whims of every member of the group. No one voice in the typical American family takes precedence over the rest. Someone is always leaving or coming back; someone is always asking if he or she can have the car; someone is always going to the refrigerator for a snack instead of a meal; someone is always arriving late at a meal or leaving it early. The rhythm of the American family is to be found in a system of communications by which the improvised activities of each of its members is made known to all so that they can be taken into account. What holds the home together is a pattern of wires and castings, as hidden from view as the inside of a transistor radio, along which a ceaseless flow of messages is carried and accommodations made to them. Messages left on the refrigerator door can for days be the only visible form of communication between members of a family who otherwise succeed in never running into each other as they come and go. This is one reason why Mom and Dad, Lois and Junior, are so noticeable as tourists, and look so uncomfortable. They are not used to doing things as a unit. One can notice this even in an ordinary restaurant in America, when a whole family has for once come out to have dinner together: one by one, each grows restless to get away, and the meal degenerates into a pitiless nagging of the one person (usually, the mother) who is actually having a good time, and so is holding up the rest. What has happened is that they are not using their transistors; since they are all together, the flow of messages has been interrupted; having to do the same thing, at the same time, their common life has lost its rhythm.

I noticed at once the general American aversion to sitting down to a meal, and the time spent, if you are a guest, sitting in an armchair, or a canvas chair on the porch, always with a low table within handy reach. What then happens was perfectly caught in 1952 by the English journalist Mervyn Jones:

'Darting in and out of the kitchen, your hostess keeps the table constantly loaded with sandwiches, plates of cheese, nice little things on crackers, bowls of fruit, nuts, olives, pretzels, rolls, cakes, cookies, and other refreshments. Gin, whisky, beer, and coffee are on tap without a moment's break. You are urged, in case there should be anything you lack, to help yourself from the two or three vast refrigerators. ...People arrive in cars, sit down, stretch out their hands with the same air of unthinking habit as a horse reaching for a clump of grass, nibble for a while, get into their cars, and go—to be replaced, no matter what the hour, by other nibblers. All sense of time is lost. ...You have, however, eaten twice as much as though you had sat round the table for three square meals.'

The fact is that a wholly different manner of life was invented in America, contrasted with that of Europe (before it began to spread there from America): with more flexibility, more activity, more fragmentation, but still with its own patterns. American society is a kaleidoscope, in which the original pattern is always being rearranged. This is itself freeing, simply in day-to-day behavior, in the opportunities to meet other people, but also in deeper ways.

Though there are classes in America, there is no class system. When I answered, "The first time I've felt free," one thing I meant was that I was free of class. How could a class system be fastened onto a shifting kaleidoscope? If you imagine that you have discovered some symmetrical pattern in American society, you have only to change the angle at which you stand to it and the pattern changes. As Martin Green wrote in 1961, "America is not dominated by any single type, much less [a] class-limited one"; and he added, referring to Britain, "In these two ways, America stands for health, and we for sickness." This is strong, but it is just. Class—accent, vocabulary, dress, manners—not only confines the lower class in England, it also confines the upper class. It is much easier to mix here with people who are unlike oneself. To whom can this be more important than the immigrant making his way into the mainstream? Why the barriers remain so difficult for blacks to cross is too large a question to go into here; and the disappointing results so far of the Puerto Rican immigration (of which Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan expected so much in Beyond the Melting Pot) also raise disconcerting questions which are beyond the scope of personal response. I will merely say that the sheer rise of the present colored—Asian, Latin American, Caribbean— immigration seems bound to present challenges which will make Americans again consider the virtues of assimilation.

Other lines than those of class are also more easily crossed: those of sex, for example, and of age. When the English have come to America they have always written at length about American women. "And what luncheons," exclaimed Clare Sheridan, "...and apparently all for themselves. There is never a man. They even pay one another compliments. I wonder if they can be contented." (There has often been this ambivalence in the consistent praise of American women.) I too would comment when I first came here on the numbers of women lunching together in restaurants. But I soon came to believe that it is partly from her associations with other women that the American woman draws, not only a strength and subtlety of feeling for her own existence (a part of her superiority which almost every English visitor has acknowledged), but also her capacity for friendship with men. It is the American man's capacity for friendship with women which is in doubt, and I attribute it to the shallowness of his associations and lack of intimacy with his own sex. In a moment I will show why that last observation is not thrown in just to provoke a riot.

But first I must emphasize what it is in American women which, especially when they began to arrive in England in large numbers a century ago, took the English by storm. In 1907, Lady Dorothy Nevill calling her "bright and vivacious," said, "it is by the American girl we have been conquered." As early as 1864 Lord Bryce, who later married one, thought that American women had "so much more freedom in their manners; ...the absence of primness was a very agreeable relief." To Rudyard Kipling in 1891, "the girls of America are above and beyond them all. ...They have societies, and clubs ... where all the guests are girls...; they understand; they can take care of themselves; they are superbly independent." But the essential point was made by Jerome K. Jerome in 1904: "The American girl has succeeded in freeing European social intercourse from many of its hide-bound conventions. There is still work for her to do. But I have a faith in her." The barrier of age is also crossed. My first editor in 1945 had lectured to a party of American students on the liner bringing them to observe postwar Europe. He exclaimed to me: "They are so different. They ask questions. They say what they think. They are not afraid to talk." Since I was twenty-one myself, and had never been afraid to talk, I thought he was a little gone in the head. There are few things more delightful than the way in which young Americans all over the country are willing to engage openly and freely in conversation and even friendship with someone perhaps more than twice their age. There is a democracy of manners in America which I would miss terribly if I ever left here.

I have been describing a society that is freeing. But there is no doubt it is also demanding. For if the immigrant feels here that he may invent himself, then is he not in that only being an American already? So much in the Old World is fixed for one: not only one's position but so much of one's life and even one's self. This is what weighs in the first part of Ascoli's remark: "It did not cause me any trouble to become an Italian." But even for an American born here, is it not his "own work" to become an American? This accounts for the one unease I still feel.

With the contrast I am about to draw, it is worth saying, I know many Americans who agree. It is much easier at first—and it is here that I am thinking of the men—to get to know an American. The welcoming "Hi!," the first names, the ready handshake, the quick generosity. You do not get through these first layers with an Englishman nearly as easily or as quickly. But once through them with an American, you come soon to a dead end, you are not admitted to the core or to any real intimacy. With the Englishman, whereas it is hard to get through the initial reserve, once through those outer layers, all resistance crumbles, and you find that you are sharing a level of extraordinary intimacy.

Julian Marias, the disciple of Ortega y Gasset, who spent much time here in the 1950s and 1960s, observed that although Americans get more mail than any other people in the world, they receive far fewer personal letters. An American friend of mine, Howard Higman, a professor of sociology, makes the point well. A letter from an American is like an itinerary, he says, a letter from an Englishman is like a diary. There is no questioning this, and I have often wondered what it is that Americans fear to expose, even whether they fear that there is nothing at the core to expose at all. But the answer, I believe, is simpler. If there has been so much freedom and informality in which to make oneself, if it really is one's "own work" to be an American, then one is bound to guard jealously a self which must often feel isolated and fragile, far more than in a society where so much of who one is has been determined for one. (For if one has been made by that society, it has made others like oneself, so what is there to fear?) This is the significance of the women's associations on which the English observers at once fixed their attention. The men's associations are far more likely to be centered on some activity—sports, watching football, hunting—anything to avoid having to talk about themselves and bare their souls. This is where one comes to a dead stop. These are the personal letters one misses. Almost all letters from American men are typed, even those from my friends, even those meant to be warmly personal. They might be dictated to a secretary, for the little they dare to say.

There is in all of this one reason why so many American attempts to describe the experience of being an American fall back on myth and metaphor, whereas almost all the English descriptions of what it seems to them to mean to be an American stick to the details and small encounters of everyday life. Americans take too much for granted the details of American life in which may often be found the meaning of the freedom and equality and opportunity which still draw people to it. We all know the wretched side of the life of the immigrants: the rough, menial, even dangerous work; the abysmally low wages; the abject conditions in which they lived, in the notorious dumbbell tenements of New York, for example, honeycombed with tiny rooms. And we know that those wretched conditions, whether in the large cities or in the acres of the Southwest baking under the sun, still exist. Yet there was and is another side. It was not all that long after the Italians began to arrive that, in their communities on the Upper East Side, there were shoulders of meat in the butcher's windows at twelve cents a pound; outside the macaroni shops, under improvised shelters, the macaroni was hung out to dry; along the curbs were the pushcarts with artichokes and asparagus, early melons and tomatoes; and a round of cheese cost twenty-four cents. And although only a third of the Italian immigrants had ever cast a vote in their native country, before the first generation had reached middle age they had politicians courting them; and Fiorello La Guardia was elected to Congress from East Harlem on his second attempt in 1916. As they shopped on their streets, where did their allegiance lie? To Genoa? We can still catch from that picture of their streets the smell of freedom.

As a young officer, George C. Marshall was surprised when he inspected his troops on landing in France in 1917, at how many of them spoke broken English. But of their stake in America, in its industry, in its freedom, there could be little doubt; this was borne out by the astonishing lack of sedition in America throughout the war. I have tried from my own experience to explain some of the small but revealing reasons why America worked its influence so quickly and so deeply on them. It now seems to be working on some of the new immigrants. In my observation, the East Asians especially (and who would have predicted it?) are responding wholeheartedly to American life—their children are into the Little League almost as soon as they are out of the cradle as they work their way, often by traditional routes such as running neighborhood stores, into the mainstream. This third wave of immigration is repeating, quite remarkably, many of the characteristics of the first two waves.

America is still open, and it will be a tragedy if those who wish it to "think small," who will to keep America as a playground for those already here, have their way, and close America down.

I will give the last words to an American. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1978: "...while the matter has not received much attention, the United States is quietly but rapidly resuming its role as a nation of first and second generation immigrants, almost the only one of its kind in the world, incomparably the largest, and for the first time in our history or any other, a nation drawn from the entire world. The Immigration Act of 1965 altered the shape of American immigration and increased its size. ...Our immigrants in wholly unprecedented proportions come from Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. In fiscal year 1973 the ten top visa-issuing ports were Manila, Monterrey, Seoul, Tijuana, Santo Domingo, Mexico City, Naples, Guadalajara, Toronto, Kingston. I would expect Bombay to make this top ten list before long. ...In short, by the end of the century, the United States will be a multi-ethnic nation the like of which even we have never imagined."

In this vision, America is still open. And America is about to be remade by its immigrants—again—as they become enthusiastic Americans. And what will the immigrants write home about? The gadgets, I beg, the gadgets.