Anglo-America

Stephen Fender

  • The London Yankees: Portraits of American Writers and Artists in England, 1894-1914 by Stanley Weintraub
    W.H. Allen, 408 pp, £7.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 491 02209 3
  • The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times by Alistair Cooke
    Bodley Head, 323 pp, £5.95, October 1979, ISBN 0 370 30163 3

The London Yankees has been warmly and widely noticed in this country, and (up to now, anyway) literary editors have set their heavies to the task of reviewing it. Why the fuss over what is, after all, no more than a lively compilation of literary biographies, a descriptive rather than analytical account that adds little to published materials already familiar to the reader interested in the subject? Because literary biography always fascinates; because lively books do not appear all that regularly; and also because of a certain pessimism about the cultural horsepower of Europe, as compared to America, which has been fashionable ever since Stephen Spender’s Love-Hate Relations. Philip Toynbee, in the Observer, came right out with it: ‘by now it is hard to see any reason why an American writer or artist should wish to settle either in Paris or London.’

Then, of course, it was another matter. James, Whistler, Sargent, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Stephen Crane, Harold Frederick, Henry Harland of the Yellow Book, Pound, Eliot, Frost; from 1894 to 1914 it seems that all the crème, not to mention the avant garde, of American talent was centred on London. Well, not all: Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (like Pound and his protégés, an early contributor to Poetry, Chicago) stayed behind; so did the group of young painters and photographers associated with Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly Camera Work. Besides, it was always possible to import whole museum-loads of the right stuff – enough to fill the 69th Regiment Armory in New York in 1913 – in case the natives weren’t keeping up with the latest trends. But there is no doubt that London was where it was happening, providing you list all the Americans of talent, however old and eminent, who found themselves there for whatever reason and length of time. (One striking omission from this book is Jack London, but then he was over in the East End fretting about the people of the abyss.) The question is whether such a concatenation represents a cultural phenomenon or a happy accident of the kind Tom Stoppard plays with in Travesties, about Zurich in 1916. It’s worth recalling that all the characters in that play were ‘taken from history’, including the narrator and master of ceremonies, Henry Carr: but as Carr says of one of the more illustrious of them, ‘he wasn’t Lenin then!

Lenin is just the kind of thing that literary biographies tend to overlook. In fact, when you come to think of it, literary biography is a pretty odd genre. Like gossip and newspapers, it is an essential urban discourse; like most English novels, it is short on plot and long on social nuance apparently irrelevant to the story. Solidity of specification is the thing. Henry Harland

was less taken with California Novelist Gertrude Atherton, who was attractive, formidable, four years his elder, and widowed. George Atherton, dapper and useless, had drained the family finances and gone off on a schooner to Tahiti, where he died and was embalmed in a barrel of rum for the return voyage. After she arranged for the transfer of her husband from cask to casket, Mrs Atherton had left San Francisco for New York with her manuscripts, having begun writing fiction as an escape from boredom as well as a way out of debt.

There is a certain Time Magazine vigour in this excerpt from The London Yankees. The brightly-lit details are diverting, but ultimately distracting. The way in which the prose reduces everything to the level of happenstance (even the writing of fiction is subordinated, syntactically as well as narratively, to the accidents of fortune) is such as to discourage historical analysis, or any kind of plot, apart from the sequence of things as they were. This weakness is the obverse of the strength – the gossipy abundance – of literary biography: its range is restricted by definition to people who once published Literature – or published anything, so long as it wasn’t something useful like an introduction to the nervous system or a do-it-yourself manual – but within that category all information about the subject’s life is to be included, from the momentous to the trivial.

The right way to read The London Yankees, then, is to treat it as a scriptible text, plotting one’s own course from the welter of data supplied. For me two interesting stories emerge. The first concerns the declining years of those Americans, not those who visited London and used it to advance their careers at home, but those who lived and died there. I had always thought that the old age of expatriates was even more terrible in its alienation than that of what used to be called confirmed bachelors: it turns out that these people did not necessarily die, spiritually or otherwise, of their transplanting. The common view of Bret Harte – the chronicler of the California Gold Rush who cut himself off from the primacy of his Western experience when he turned English gentleman – is convincingly undermined by this book. He kept writing stories set in the Wild West, but they were far from the hack work so derided by contemporary ‘Westerners’ like Mark Twain. In England, he wrote of the West ‘even more dryly and ironically than before, eschewing much of his earlier sentimentality,’ says Professor Weintraub judiciously. ‘The belief that he did no work of artistic merit after he left California was inaccurate.’ It might be added that even what he wrote at the scene of his adventures was sifted through other writers, chief among them being an Eastern lady called Luise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, known for obvious reasons as Dame Shirley, whose letters from the California mines are a minor masterpiece of social observation, and from whom – irony of ironies – even Mark Twain seems to have picked up a trick or two.

James, who anticipated Professor Weintraub’s favourable judgment, was fascinated by Harte’s case: ‘Removed, early in his career, from all sound, all refreshing and fertilising plash of the original fount of inspiration, he has, nevertheless, continued to draw water there to fill his pitcher to the brim ... Has he continued to distil and dilute the Wild West because the public would only take him as wild and western, or has he achieved the feat, at whatever cost, out of the necessity of his conscience?’ Neither James nor Weintraub supplies the impossible answer, but certainly the question moves wider rings of inquiry around the problem of ‘place’ in expatriate writing. Did you know, for example, that what Americans take to be Robert Frost’s most characteristic evocations of his native scene – ‘Birches’, ‘Mending Wall’ and ‘After Apple Picking’ – were written in Old England, not New? Or that Stephen Crane’s ‘The bride comes to Yellow Sky’ and ‘The Blue Hotel’ – for most critics, the only decent fiction to come out of the American West – actually came out of Oxted, Surrey? Perhaps nostalgia sharpens the sense of place (obviously it does), or perhaps quiddity is not essential to good fiction. Certainly it doesn’t figure largely in the fiction of James himself, of which it might be said, along with Gertrude Stein on the subject of her home town, Oakland, California: ‘There is no “There” there.’

The other topic snaking its way through these pages is war. Before rushing to judgment, one should recall that there was a time when war must have seemed something of a spectator sport. Even so, and even in the 19th century, people (somewhere) did get killed in wars: so it looks like something approaching a failure of sympathy when we find so many American expatriates subordinating war to the protocol of their artistic careers. It was all right for Crane, perhaps, to chase wars from Turkey to Cuba only to arrive just as they finished (one of the advantages of those innocent days over our own was that wars lasted less long than it took to get to them), since he made his living as a war reporter. But what about Whistler’s fervent support of the Boers against the British because his work had been so admired in Holland and slighted in England?

When the Great War broke out, the patter of literary feet turned into a stampede. I would love to have seen a certain heavy, mustachioed woman demanding instant passage home, and after failing to secure a ticket, screaming to a friend: ‘Don’t they know I’m Amy Lowell? ... And it was this month that my book of poems was coming out here! ... What attention will it get with this going on?’ Alas, more than it has got in recent times. Frost, at least, realised ‘that the War had ended his “little literary game” in England,’ but he was concerned mainly to get home ‘before the Germans sow the Western Ocean with mines.’ ‘He had concluded he could do little for England by remaining,’ adds Weintraub in the true deadpan of the literary biographer. ‘His duty was to further his own work.’

But those who stayed behind were even more remote from reality. ‘John Sargent, painting in the Austrian Tyrol, continued undisturbed.’ Pound carried on fighting for T.S. Eliot. Jacob Epstein told his patron John Quinn: ‘My business as I see it is to get on with my work ... Everybody here is war-mad. But my life has always been war.’ Well, in a manner of speaking, perhaps. James took the figurative mode to greater heights: ‘My hands are dripping with blood,’ he told Edith Wharton. ‘All the way from Chelsea to Grosvenor Place I have been bayoneting, my dear Edith, and hurling bombs and ravishing and raping.’ Only George Santayana kept his head, neither underestimating the importance of the war nor relishing romantic flourishes in its service.

It would be unfair to blame this hothouse view of the world on literary people alone. Anglo-American relations, from the days of the first Cunard schedules, have been dominated by leisured tourists, diplomats and reporters who thought they were interpreting the other side, when really they were reflecting a layer of transatlantic opinion somewhere between the ionosphere and the English-Speaking Union. Even Alistair Cooke, a level-headed observer if ever there was one, lives by now in a world of golf and generation gaps, where people worry about neologisms and cholesterol. His friends are ‘a distinguished American magazine editor’, a New York ‘advertising tycoon’, ‘the handsome, the able, senior Senator from Connecticut’. His antipathies (Nastase, Angela Davis, drugs, sexual intercourse on stage, liberals who want to cut the defence budget) are those of the Time-Economist ellipse. It took the Second World War to bring a sense of reality to transatlantic understanding, and that because Americans came to England for the first time in hundreds of thousands, among whom were a clear majority of ordinary people who ordinarily would not have gone abroad at all, let alone gone in search of a ‘usable past’ in London or Stratford-upon-Avon. The interpreters then were Edward R. Murrow and a younger Alistair Cooke, who spoke urgently to a multinational audience for whom mutual understanding was a matter of survival, and the guidebooks to Anglo-American cultural differences were those now forgotten pamphlets issued to British and American troops.

Americans stationed in Britain were advised not to throw their weight around, or complain of warm beer and tasteless food. A Professor W.R. Hinton reminded his British readers that Americans were ‘even more democratic than we are, or at any rate seem so’, that Americans might well know more about English literature than the natives, but that ‘culture and social activities are still left mainly to the women.’ (There is considerable truth in this apparent contradiction.) Margaret Mead’s ‘The Yank in Britain’ (Current Affairs, 11 March 1944) was a masterpiece of condensed advice for British soldiers and civilians enduring the American build-up for the Normandy invasion. She was especially acute, as might be expected and was certainly needed, on the courting habits of the American male. An American boy ‘proves he is popular by having dates with the girl who is most popular’, but she proves her popularity by refusing him kisses. ‘A really successful date is one in which the boy asks for everything and gets nothing, except a lot of words.’ (No wonder the English girls were confused, and no wonder Catch-22 emerged from World War Two.) Some British girls ‘take his words, which sound like wooing, for wooing, and give a kiss with real warmth, which surprises him very much ... He isn’t prepared for the initial shyness of the British people, nor for the sudden completeness with which they ask him inside their houses – when finally they do take to him.’

These pamphlets are discussed in Norman Longmate’s The GI’s: The Americans in Britain, 1942-1945,[*] one of the first attempts to study this wider aspect of the English-speaking union. Longmate is as anecdotal as Professor Weintraub, but naturally draws his information from oral sources too, and so extends Anglo-American cultural relations beyond the literary. Though, indeed, it may be said to have left ‘literature’ quite behind, his book seems to have influenced at least one work of the imagination. John Schlesinger’s film Yanks seems at times almost to be arranging its scenes so as to tick off chapters in Longmate (the rain, the Americans’ impatience in queues, their uneasy invitations to British homes, the hostility between blacks and white Southern troops), and it builds its story line on Margaret Mead’s courting paradox. Perhaps because it is a love story with an upbeat ending, Yanks has been criticised as romantic and soft-centred, but it is a moving survey of cultural repulsions and attractions, worked out in terms of the constraints and freedoms conventional in the two societies.

[*] Hutchinson (1975).