As a native of England and, therefore, whether I like it or not, a citizen of the European Union, who, since 2001, has been a resident in, and latterly a citizen of, the United States, I am sometimes asked to give the European perspective on America. Those who make this request have no idea of the enormity of the thing that they wish to know. The request is not asking for one person’s perspective on one issue; it’s asking for a whole continent’s perspective on a whole nation. An adequate response would demand a whole book. No, it demands a whole series of books. One can imagine a book on the perspective of Britain, Spain and France on the American colonies, and another book on the perspective of eighteenth-century Europe on the new American nation following the Declaration of Independence. The latter book would no doubt contrast the British attitude to the new ‘United States’ with the attitude of other European nations, most particularly the perspective of post-revolutionary France. A third book might look at the view of Europeans towards the United States in the nineteenth century, centering on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America but also incorporating the view of Victorian visitors to America, such as Charles Dickens or Oscar Wilde. Another interesting perspective, and one which might warrant a book in its own right, would be that of Europeans towards the rights and wrongs of America’s fratricidal civil war. It is interesting, for instance, that the British supported the cause of the South, as did Pope Pius IX. One can imagine another book detailing the European perspective of newly-arrived immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As we move into the twentieth century, it would clearly be necessary to study the changing attitude of Europe towards the United States as the latter took its place as a truly global power during the years between the two world wars; and the impact of the United States’ involvement in those wars on Europe’s perspective of America would also seem to demand a volume in its own right. And then, of course, there is the evolving European perspective of the United States during the period of the Cold War; and the view of the communist half of Europe towards the USA during this same period. And what of the European perspective on Vietnam, or the Civil Rights movement, or Hollywood; or the impact of rock n roll, or the European perspective on 9-11? By my calculation, that’s fourteen volumes covering the topic of “America: The European Perspective”. Clearly it would be foolish to attempt such a task in a solitary article. This being so, I might return occasionally to this huge and imposing topic, looking at it from different angles.
In my first effort at addressing the issue of America from the European perspective, I’d like to concentrate on the perspective of G. K. Chesterton, an Englishman writing of his impressions of the United States during the early years of the last century.
G. K. Chesterton’s most amusing account of the difference between “Old Europe” and the “New World” is given in his autobiography. He recounts a “rather ridiculous private incident” which involved the meeting between Chesterton’s good friend, Hilaire Belloc, “and a very famous and distinguished author”. The author in question was Henry James, and the meeting occurred during 1908 in Rye, a charming town in Sussex on England’s south coast, where Chesterton and his wife had rented a house for a short holiday. Henry James lived in the house next door and when he heard of the Chestertons’ arrival he paid a visit.
Chesterton classified James as “an American who had reacted against America; and steeped his sensitive psychology in everything that seemed most antiquatedly and aristocratically English”. He then describes with evident delight the formal trappings of their first meeting:
Needless to say, it was a very stately call of state; and James
seemed to fill worthily the formal frock-coat of those far-off days.
As no man is so dreadfully well-dressed as a well-dressed American,
so no man is so terribly well-mannered as a well-mannered American …
Chesterton and James discussed the literature of the day, including the plays of Shaw and the works of Hugh Walpole, with delicate and decorous politeness until the peace was shattered by “a loud bellowing noise resembling that of an impatient foghorn”:
I knew, however, that it was not a fog-horn; because it was roaring
out, “Gilbert! Gilbert!” and was like only one voice in the world …
I knew it was Belloc, probably shouting for bacon and beer;
but even I had no notion of the form or guise under which he
would present himself.
I had every reason to believe that he was a hundred miles away in France.
And so, apparently, he had been; walking with a friend of his in the
Foreign Office, a co-religionist of one of the old Catholic families;
and by some miscalculation they had found themselves in the middle
of their travels entirely without money…Their clothes collapsed and they managed to get into some workmen’s slops. They had no razors and could not afford a shave.
They must have saved their last penny to recross the sea;
and then they started walking from Dover to Rye; where they knew
their nearest friend for the moment resided. They arrived,
roaring for food and drink and derisively accusing each other of having
secretly washed, in violation of an implied contract between tramps.
In this fashion they burst in upon the balanced tea-cup and tentative
sentence of Mr. Henry James.
Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation
was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men,
did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part.
He had left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant
by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the traditions of
lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits
in oak-panelled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table,
was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England,
the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers;
ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades
of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what
looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston;
and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic …
I have always been haunted by the contradictions of that comedy;
and if I could ever express all that was involved in it, I should write
a great book on international affairs. I do not say I should become
the champion of an Anglo-American Alliance; for any fool can do that,
and indeed generally does. But I should begin to suggest something
which is often named and has never been even remotely approached:
an Anglo-American Understanding.
In the conclusion to this amusing anecdotal memory, Chesterton touches upon the mystery at the heart of the topic with which we are grappling. It’s almost as though the difference between Europe and America is as mysterious and as baffling as is the difference between a man and a woman. On the one hand, Europeans and Americans are so close, and have so much in common, and seemingly cannot live without each other; yet, on the other hand, there is a chasm that separates us which is wider than the Atlantic. If it is true that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, it seems to be equally true the east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet. This, at least, is the impression one gets when looking at the way that Chesterton tries manfully – or, within the present Anglo-American context, Englishmanfully–to get to grips with America from the European perspective.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography, London: Hutchinson, 1936, pp. 219-21