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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Others See Us: “America,” the European Myth

". . . like the first morning . . ."

John Locke started it, with his Second Treatise on Government. “In the beginning,” he wrote, “all the world was America.” He wasn’t talking about a particular continent or set of continents but about human social life before the establishment of “civil society,” before established cultural traditions and legal concepts.

What would human life conducted in a pure “state of nature” look like? Where Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” the constant warfare of “all against all,” and Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned “noble savages,” unspoiled rather than deformed by civilization, Locke (neither as pessimistic as Hobbes nor as idealistic as Rousseau) took a middle ground. Acknowledging and welcoming the advantages and protections conferred by civil society, he nevertheless saw their beginnings in the family, nature’s “first society,” with responsible adults working together to improve property and nurture children, long before there were laws or cultural traditions in place.

Locke’s idea of “all the world as America” fired the European imagination, as did the American frontier itself. Long into the 20th century, Hollywood Western adventure stories were as popular overseas as in the United States, Western movies even at times copied and filmed in European countries (“spaghetti Westerns”), and that fascination is not over yet. Epic literary tales like Jim Harrison’s Revenge find huge audiences abroad. “Jim Harrison?” exclaimed a bookseller I asked in Paris about French translations of our friend’s books. “J’adore Jim Harrison!”

What do most European tourists want to see when they visit the United States? New York, the Grand Canyon, Disney World, and Hollywood. A few may fly over Chicago and get an idea of Lake Michigan, but it is the open, empty expanses of land, the young mountain ranges, the soaring skyscrapers, and the Disney fantasy that best answer European preconceptions of our land.

I was reminded of the myth of America when I picked up Paris la Grande, by Philippe Meyer. Ah, Paris! Surely the antithesis of Chicago, wouldn’t you imagine? But immediately in the opening section the author astounds me by writing of Paris as “cette espèce d’Amerique où chacun peut espérer donner à sa vie un nouveau départ.” Paris, he is saying, is a kind of America -- because (and here comes the myth) one can come to Paris to start a new life on a blank slate! Coming either to Paris or to America, he believes, you can leave small town traditional life and escape your neighbors’ eyes and judgment!

When I was in graduate school, a friend from Ethiopia who had had a very French education up to that point was astonished to find that large numbers of Americans, like “country people” anywhere in the world, maintained attachments to specific regions and landscapes and to life in far-flung towns and villages. My love of Michigan amazed her. Why would I, an educated person, identify so strongly with a particular section of the country? Wasn’t “America” a more universal concept and therefore a more appropriate object for my devotion? She was also surprised to find intense religious feeling among so many Americans. Before coming here, she had imagined America as a land where inhabitants looked only to the future, relying on nothing but science and law, feeling no inhibitions and respecting no traditions.

But that’s just it. Even America is not “America” in that sense – it is not, that is, the mythic “America” -- and it never was. Before Europeans “discovered” the continent, different peoples called different regions of the land home, and while some of them moved from one place to another with the seasons, it rarely occurred to any of them to leave the familiar entirely, without any reason, and strike out for parts unknown. Tradition is part of human life. Our first attachments can only be local.

Paris has its own traditions, and, like Chicago or Cincinnati, many of its neighborhoods are small towns in themselves, peopled by inhabitants who immigrated to the capital from an outlying province or a foreign country, bringing with them their food and customs. Like New York, Paris can be provincial, too, and much of its charm lies in that fact. Meyer recognizes as much, I learn as I read on, but it is still the possibility of anonymity in the metropolis that attracts him and, he believes, attracts most people who come to make their home there.

Isn’t the possibility of freedom in anonymity the attraction of most cities as opposed to small towns? I don’t see it as particular to Paris, much though I love Paris. Meyer’s migration from Versailles to Paris has much in common with Alfred Kazin’s escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and I found the delightful feeling of freedom myself in Cincinnati, where I could roam the streets and neighborhoods like a tourist no one knew (like Chiang Yee’s “silent traveler”) and then go home alone to my little student apartment to read and write.

Paris as “America”! Leave it to a Frenchman to come up with such a startling and controversial concept!

Can you imagine a French family coming to live in Northport with the expectation of escaping neighbors’ eyes? In our little village? And yet, ain’t we America, too?

* * * 

Another local note: En cherchant le vert du commencement du printemps ce matin, je l’ai trouvé! Not yet visible from the road, the first wild leeks are up an inch or two in the woods.

Spring is beginning to spring


dmarks said...

Paris and Chicago: city of light vs city of fights. I was close to mentioning John Locke in my most recent recent post: he was prominent in the "Lost" TV show, as were Rousseau, Burke, and Bakunin.

P. J. Grath said...

City of fights? How about Windy City for Chicago? Though I went to high school 45 miles southwest of the Windy City, it’s Cincinnati I explored more thoroughly, by car, by public transportation, and (despite the challenging hills) on foot.

Here’s an interesting e-mail received from New South Wales:

“Strangely, although Australia is so very far away from America (or anywhere else, for that matter) I think Australians generally have a reasonable idea of life in America apart from the theme parks and the Grand Canyon. Australians do an awful lot of travelling and there are lots of student exchange programmes with America, and sports scholarships to universities etc from here. As well as that we are fed a steady diet of American movies all our lives and a lot of those depict the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, as well as the big cities. We get a lot of American news stories so we know more about you than you do about us. In contrast to your friend who thought Americans were not religious there is a fairly widespread idea here that they are more religious than we are, and more patriotic.

“We don’t hear so often these days about Americans who want to know if we can speak English, or are we part of Austria, but jokes are still made along those lines. Our pop stars all sing with American accents but, interestingly, our radio announcers have dropped their fake British accents and all sound like fair dinkum Aussies.

“Jet travel, mobile ‘phones, the Internet and all modern technology have made this into a very small world, haven’t they?”

Indeed, Kathy, I’m sure Aussies know more about us Yanks than than we do about you. And there is a mythic Australia, too, certainly. Family members of someone I know slightly have recently become official Australians, and that made me think that you are even more the “New World” than is America. How would a European put that? Would he say that Australia is now America? Myths have long lives!

dmarks said...

The fights reference did have a literary inspiration: Carl Sandburg:
"Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

But. remembering Chicago's White City, there is some aspect of City of Lights about it, too.

P. J. Grath said...

Go to the head of the class, dmarks! Carl Sandburg and the world's fair both! Strange that I grew up in the shadow of Chicago but know my way around Cincinnati much better. The hills! The Ohio River! The Roebling Bridge! A rich architectural city, too. It should be more famous than it is.

dmarks said...

I only know Cincinnati for WKRP, Skyline Chili, and crime. Multiple friends were robbed just passing through Cincinnati briefly.

P. J. Grath said...

Isn’t WKRP imaginary? Fictional? I know it was a TV show or something. Skyline Chili was all over town, and I’ve heard of people who time getting to Cincinnati for the chili, but when I lived there I ate very little meat and only homemade chili. Graeter’s ice cream is also famous, and I went to a Graeter’s within walking distance of my apartment on an almost daily basis for morning coffee and roll. Aglamesis Brothers ice cream parlor in Oakley was for special occasions.

When people visited me in Cincinnati, I would take them to Graeter’s; Aglamesis; Dutenhoffer’s Books on the south side of the UC campus; the Omni Netherland Hotel downtown, with its beautiful palm court; the Carew Tower with its great views over the city; numerous wonderful bars and coffee houses and other bookstores all over the city; Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum, a lovely landmark example of the nineteenth-century “Rural Cemetery Movement” that created spacious, park-like cemeteries in many different countries of the world; the Church of the Immaculata up on Mount Adams; Eden Park; the beautiful, beautiful Cincinnati Art Museum (which I joined for the pleasure of taking my visitors, never missing a chance); the Krohn Conservatory; over the Ohio River into Kentucky and back, for the pleasure of crossing via the beautiful blue Roebling Bridge, which was the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge; and on tours of many quite “ordinary” neighborhoods with beautiful stone walls, wrought-iron fences; fanlights over the houses’ front entrances, etc. Cincinnati is a city of neighborhoods, each one a small town with its own unique character and its own shopping district and long-time residents.

I walked and took buses all over town when I lived there and was never robbed and never knew anyone who was robbed, although I’m sure there were robberies in the city during that time period. A friend of mine who lived abroad for years was afraid to return to the U.S. because all she heard in the news from home (Michigan) was crime reporting. Pickpockets are the scourge of Paris, but it didn’t keep me from going there. In any city, one takes precautions. A good combination of precaution and goodwill bring on the good times in most cities of the world.

Doth the lady protest too much?