I had such high hopes for Terry Eagleton's Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America.
In the past I have of course enjoyed books discussing British characteristics, like Sarah Lyall's The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British and A. A. Gill's The Angry Island: Hunting the English. So when I heard about this title, I thought, hey, this'll be fun. And since I don't really think of my identity being much tied to being "American," I also didn't think Eagleton's cultural critique would affect me very deeply.
Well, I was right in that it didn't really affect me very deeply. But I also didn't find it much fun. Eagleton, a "public intellectual" (and author of literary criticism books: this should have been a clue), was born in England, but lives in Ireland with his wife and family. In this title, he takes a "quirky journey through the language, geography, and national character of the United States" (thank you, jacket copy). His chapter headings include the following: "America the Beautiful," "The Affirmative Spirit," "The One and the Many," and "The Fine and the Good." Sound vague? Well, they are, rather. One of the problems I'm having writing about this book is that I can barely remember, a week after I read it, its organizing principle or really what each chapter was about. I think that was one of the failings of this title: in its sameness and its dry-ish, rather academic style, it never offered any sort of narrative build-up to a larger or more cohesive point. When a book that is less than 200 pages long feels like a slog, you know you have a problem.
I did not really enjoy the book as a whole, but that does not mean I didn't enjoy some of its constituent parts. I stuck a great many bookmarks in it, for passages like the following:
"Because of the all-powerful will, Americans are great believes in the fraudulent doctrine that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough. In no other country on earth does one hear this consoling lie chanted so often...One wonders why the nation does not put its mind to abolishing poverty, if all of its mental strivings are guaranteed to succeed. The United States has a larger proportion of its population in prison, higher levels of mental illness, greater rates of teen pregnancy, a lower level of child well-beig, and higher levels of poverty and social exclusion than most other developed nations. Perhaps this is because its people have not been exercising their wills in concert." (p. 96.)
Kinda bitchy? Sure. Pretty funny? Yes. Fairy accurate? I'd say so. And, often, even when Eagleton offers a small compliment, he makes sure it still arrives with a small barb:
"Generally speaking, American students are a delight to teach. Yet they are not always able to voice a coherent English sentence, even at graduate level." (p. 33.)
About the most damning thing I can say about a book is that blogging about it is just totally boring. It hurts me to say that about this book, because it wasn't really that bad, but I have been struggling with boredom writing this post. And I have a sneaking suspicion you've probably been a little bored reading it. As they would say in Great Britain: sorry* about that.
*Eagleton explains: "One knows one is back in the United Kingdom when everyone is constantly saying "sorry" for no reason whatsoever." (p. 17.)