Why America?

 ‘They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass’

 John Ashbery

I first read On the Road at the age of sixteen, during a family holiday in Anglesey, where I burrowed down in a caravan sleeping bag, taking secret nips from a bottle of White Horse whisky while my parents slept in the back berth. As landscapes relative to reading experience, it’s hard to imagine one more antithetical. But all of reading is a process of zoning, of imposing one place over another. Brixton becomes New Orleans. Argentina becomes Wales, and all the way back again. Manchester is Chicago. That stretch of fields over there is Wyoming, Moscow.

It’s difficult to discount the American influence on my early life. In that, I’m no different to most people born in the later half of the twentieth century. That doesn’t explain why these myths take hold, persuade and dominate, infiltrate the imagination to the extent that the fictive ideal b
orders on life-warping delusion. Part of me wonders if it’s something to do with the boredom of small English towns. They are liminal spaces, creeping between cities and houses, where space and identities are easily eroded, and can be transformed into everywhere. If you feel that you have no place within the established structures of your country, America offers itself as a destination, either physical or imaginative. The accent is different, but the outlook is the same. Underdogs head out of town.

In American Smoke, his book about chasing down the myths of Beat writing, Iain Sinclair traces the counter-impulse: of outsider American regard for the glib cornerstones of English identity. ‘The masque of England the veteran Beats enthuse over- P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Peter Ackroyd- is as much a surprise to me as my fondness for [John] Wieners, Lew Welch and Ed Dorn is to them. We are both chasing- in our ignorance, compensatory stereotypes of difference.’

If the number of themed diners across London is anything to go by, a certain part of the American myth survives, albeit cannibalized: threatened buffalo
wings, a costume lunch. The ideal for America no longer exists, in the way I understood it. All the propaganda (Pollock and Rambo, Top Gun and The Paris Review) is no longer as persuasive; it resembled TASS a long time ago. Talk to some Americans now, and they see their country as something consumed by various bad energies. Collapse is a ready word: everyone knows that all empires must fall. Peace-keeping drones, sub-prime mortgages, NSA smokescreens, Google and Apple tax arrangements: these are the contemporary fictions which resonate. These are the stories you buy, or question.

Any utopia inevitably becomes a personal ideal, a construct of white lies. When I finally did visit America (getting one over on Kafka) the reality failed to synch. It took me over twenty years to envisage returning. Coming from a class-nervous country, under the threat of nuclear war, I was used to the idea of living with anxiety. But the American anxiety took me by surprise, mainly because it was so manifest. The American destiny doesn’t sit easily with some people; they become like actors with stage fright, nervous in the wings. Going back to the Sinclair quote, I wonder what it is that is ‘compensatory’ in this cross-Atlantic swooning for each other’s constructed ideals. For me, it was that sense of shaking loose from a small island, which seemed quite willing to exclude me. For the American mind, maybe it’s a yearning for things to be a little more rigid, a bit more fixed.

And maybe that’s the anxiety, right there. In the land of social mobility, the story goes that anyone can make it. So what does it mean when you don’t?

‘America, then, is an interesting land,’ said the stupid army doctor, because there had been a pause in the conversation.

And he went on with his old grumble, ‘In this town one rusticates, one’s skull is glued on and the brain dries up.’

Joseph Roth

© Daniel Bennett

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