U.K. scholar Terry Eagleton is one of the most influential literary critics in the world, and the author of more than two dozen books. His latest is called Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America. Just in time for Fourth of July weekend, he tells us exactly what Brits think of us.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Terry, I have to say I’m stoked you’re here and I’m psyched to talk about your new book.
Terry Eagleton: Oh, thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Interesting — you took my typical American introduction in stride, like a true Englishman. According to your book my greeting was very American, in that it was casual, was upbeat, and I assumed I could use your first name.
Terry Eagleton: You can indeed. I must say that if we were on American Television it would be my duty to smile as soon as the camera came on.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Good to know, because stereotyping countries is a grim business. How about we start with what you were just talking about: Why do you think Americans are so conscious about self-presentation?
Terry Eagleton: I talk in the book about the contradictions of that, actually. Because on the one hand, a very commercial society of course, with packaging and image and presentation. On the other hand, a very Puritan society, which I think America is in all kinds of ways, is concerned with what’s inside. Quite often you hear in the States, “What matters is what’s inside you.”
I think it’s an interesting contradiction there. Commercialism wants appearance, puritanism wants the inner goods. The inner truth.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well you talk about how puritanism and commercialism live side by side in the United States. Doesn’t that make us well-rounded?
Terry Eagleton: There’s a great American impulse to have everything. You see, more is better in the States, which is somewhat at odds with a certain European, more minimalist way of looking. Which is a certain sparseness, a certain reticence, a certain austerity even.
The American impulse is to amplify. Whereas the impulse in Britain, and indeed in Dublin, Ireland, where I’m sitting now and live, is to diminish.I asked a friend of mine in Ireland how he was, and he said he was “fine, except for a touch of cancer.” I don’t think you’d hear that in the States.
Brendan Francis Newnam: No, I don’t think you would. I want to step back for a second. At the beginning of your book you say “Well, if we’re not able to stereotype each other with a fair degree of accuracy, social life would grind to a halt.”
You say that Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of stereotypes. Can you explain why?
Terry Eagleton: Well, I think if millions of people have lived in the same situation over donkey’s years it would be astonishing if they didn’t have certain mental and cultural traits in common. I think Americans do as much as anybody else.
I think the American resistance to that which you ask about is largely to do with individualism. America is a very rampant individualist society and doesn’t like lumping people together.
I once had a friend who’s an American sociologist, who told me he’d once gone into his department at university and he saw his secretary in tears. He tried to console her as best he could, but then he walked down the corridor and he looked into another office and there was another secretary in tears.
“Terry,” he said, “one secretary in tears is tragedy; two is sociology.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, in a way, your book is an exercise in stereotyping. I’d like to read some of the things that you say are stereotypically American, and then have you explain where you’re coming from, if that’s OK.
The first one is, “Americans believe in the fraudulent doctrine that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough.”
Terry Eagleton: Yes, I hear that so often in the States. In kind of jaded, cynical Europe, it has a very strange ring to it.
I hear this perhaps more on television than in real life, to be sure. I hear this sort of mantra that if you try hard enough — if only you believe deeply enough — you can crack it. It is absolutely perniciously false, and it can set up expectations and desires and ideals that then result in people being disappointed and disenchanted and so on.
You believe that if you try, you can crack it. We believe that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try … and then give up. There’s no point in making a bloody fool of yourself.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Let’s move on to another one of your observations about America. “One of the grave moral defects of Americans is they tend to be straight, honest, and plain-speaking.”
Terry Eagleton: Oh, it’s terribly boring. Yes, you’re awful. I find it so embarrassing. You know, I talk to Americans I suddenly realize that they mean every word that they say! Whereas I come from a long tradition of Irish jokers and twisters and Oscar Wildes and people who wouldn’t be caught dead meaning what they say.
Indeed it was Oscar himself who once said, “I live in dread of not being misunderstood.” Which, as I think I say in the book, you wouldn’t hear on the lips of Pat Robertson or Dick Cheney.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You would not.
Terry Eagleton: Again, there’s a very admirable honesty about that very puritan value. I think it’s again part of the puritan heritage. It means you can do business, it means you know where you are. But I think it also involves a kind of uneasiness with play, and famously with irony and so on.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So you’re obviously a student of America. You’ve spent a lot of time here. What is one American trait that you wish you had as an Englishman?
Terry Eagleton: If we had a little more of the zest and affirmation we might stop complaining and grousing and grumbling as much as we do. On the other hand, I have a kind of affection for that, you know. I mean, the British, as I say in the book, believe the future will be very different. Namely, worse.