This blog, published free of charge since September 2007, is a way for me to stay in touch with seasonal bookstore visitors from afar and with all customers and friends when I am closed during the winter. My annual seasonal retirement will begin this year on November 1, and I expect to be back and open again by June 2021. Meanwhile, thank you so much for following Books in Northport and for supporting Dog Ears Books.
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Tuesday, April 9, 2013
How Others See Us: “America,” the European Myth
". . . like the first morning . . ."
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
as “America”! Leave it to a Frenchman to come up with such a startling and
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?
* * *
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.