Peter Conrad’s Flight from Precision

Richard Poirier

  • Imagining America by Peter Conrad
    Routledge, 319 pp, £7.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0370 6

When the Redcoats first encountered the Colonial revolutionaries they were quite unexpectedly beaten, and according to an anecdote in Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New, they were beaten because they were the best-trained infantry in Europe. They had been so well trained that when they looked at the rough American terrain on which their opponents had chosen to meet them, they could not see it. Instead, what they saw was a European battlefield on which they expected to march in formation to meet and overwhelm a similar formation of the enemy, rather than uncouth renegades shooting from behind trees. A gridiron of style, a trained mode of perception, preceded them into battle, creating the illusion that in front of them was only what they intended to find.

Though he doesn’t mention Rosenberg, or any other critic for that matter, Peter Conrad, Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, is convinced that a similar destiny was in store for the English writers of the 19th and 20th centuries who ‘imagined’ America during their visits to it. They imagined it not freely but in obedience to various pre-existent notions both about the continent and about themselves. The imaginative metamorphoses of America are located in the writings, in turn, of Frances Trollope, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens (gathered in Chapter Two under the heading ‘Institutional America’), Oscar Wilde and Rupert Brooke (‘Aesthetic America’), Kipling and R.L. Stevenson (‘Epic (and Chivalric) America’), H.G. Wells (‘Futuristic America’), D.H. Lawrence (‘Primitive America’), W.H. Auden (‘Theological America’), Aldous Huxley (Psychedelic America’), and Christopher Isherwood (‘Mystical America’).

As the chapter titles suggest, each of these writers is supposed to see America as if it were shaped by a literary genre or in conformity to some cluster of images. America for the Trollopes and Dickens becomes, therefore, a failed novel: in place of a society it has institutions which destroy any possibility of ‘character’. Wilde, and in a slightly different way Brooke, delighted in what displeased their predecessors. The failure of America to create any semblance of European private life meant for them the absence of domesticity, and a corresponding opportunity for the workings of perverse and decadent theories of aesthetic reform. Brooke is said to be different from Wilde because, whereas Wilde tried to ‘ally art with the muscularity of sport’ during a visit to the Harvard gym, Brooke, reporting on a baseball game between Yale and Harvard, ‘more decadently turns sport into ballet’, though why myth, religion or Shakespeare are not also made ‘decadent’ by the same transformation goes unexplained, unless for Conrad ballet itself is ‘decadent’.

At first, Kipling and Stevenson were happy that America was an alternative to the Victorian novel, since they were looking for the epic and the chivalric romance. H.G. Wells was also happy at first – nearly everyone in the book eventually comes to think of the place as ‘hell’ – since America represented ‘the novel’s logical successor, science fiction’. Lawrence expected to discover yet another answer to the moribund European novel in a mythological past existing beneath the institutional, enterprising or technological surfaces.

Subsequent English visitors praise America for the very reason that it fails to live up to these earlier literary expectations. Because America has of late become a public ‘hell’, it all the more affords, out of some benign neglect, a private haven for anyone’s ‘thing’. Auden can satisfy his infantilism while subscribing to the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr; Huxley can freely investigate the subliminal Gods with the assistance of drugs; Isherwood can commune with Swami Prabhavananda along with any number of sun-tanned meditators and/or boyfriends. There is therefore a sequence to the ‘discoveries’, or rather, a progressive contraction, moving from institutional life that destroys individualism, through the promise of free exploration and rebirth, to the blank acceptance or celebration of self-extinction.

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