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America: From the Outside, Looking In

By / January 30, 1991



ANTHOLOGIES of quotes, anecdotes, and aphorisms seem made for the 1990s. Who, after all, has time to read the authors' works in their entirety? Better to enjoy the bons mots harvested by some poor soul who's slogged his way through the originals to find the morsels worth savoring. Such people deserve credit. There's an art in selecting a good passage from a longer work. First, it must stand on its own, read as though written just for those of us who enjoy our reading in bite-sized portions. Second, it must make its point at one jab, evoking humor, pathos, insight, or wit.

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Perhaps a good anecdote shares a quality with the short poem. We bring to the tidbit our own experience and automatically sketch in the missing elements. We imagine we know all of what the writer intended. And since the experience is ours, not the writer's, who's to say we're wrong?

What more fertile field could there be for an anecdote-gatherer than Americans themselves? Particularly now, at a corner in history, when the last lonely superpower is (yet again) in search of its identity. The fact that trying to sum up America in any text, short or long, is impossible doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. Reading the passages on this page consecutively produces the effect of echo upon echo, each building on the last until a meaningful sound is heard, perhaps short of understanding, but still, I think, rewarding.

The excerpts below are a sample from the book ``Americans: The View From Abroad.'' To me, they read like postcards from America's friends and skeptics around the world.

British journalist Alistair Cooke on the Grand Canyon:

We walked out onto a terrace, and there it was: the biggest hole on earth, thirteen miles from rim to rim, two miles deep, down a hellish immensity to a trickling river. And a silence as absolute as death.... Travel writers usually announce that something is indescribable and then proceed to writhe through inadequate descriptions. I won't be caught in this trap. No matter how many home movies you've seen of it, or colored centerfolds, the thing itself is beyond human experience.... We marched a mile or two along the rim and watched the sun go over, and the mile-long shadows shifting across layer after layer of red and purple and yellow mesas the size of cities.... When all the empires are dust, it will be there, with the little hawks and the big buzzards wheeling and gliding to the end of time.

Briton Stephen Pern, hiking at 12,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains:

Strange to say, I began to cry; sometimes the sheer scale of America overwhelmed me.

I sniffed, frowned, and wiped a sleeve across my cheek. I suppose that an American coming to England would do the complete opposite and burst out laughing. I wouldn't blame him - our diddy little fields and tinky-winky hills must look like a model.... You saw whole geographical features from up here - complete mountain ranges, entire drainage systems. You began to see how massive the scale of things really is. You saw weather sweeping in, cloud shadows racing over sage miles below, dappling whole forests, sweeping unhindered across snowbound tundra, the clouds themselves torn on the jagged peaks.

Australian Clive James on the Statue of Liberty:

Though firmly anchored, she is flexible, though stronger than all the forces ranged against her she is light to the spirit - America as it would like to be, and at its best is. When night falls the big lights grouped around the eleven-pointed start-fort send up their coned beams to illuminate her as she strides seaward carrying her Declaration of Independence - the woman of liberation, 'eclairant le monde in a spike hat. Tricky to deal with but not unattractive if you like them tall.

South African bishop Desmond Tutu:

I am impressed with the openness of Americans symbolized by the lack of fences around most homes in contrast, to say, South Africa, a much fenced country in all kinds of ways. Also by their generosity. I am amazed at sophisticated people who can be so naive in their adulation of some of their presidents. But it is also an extraordinary country for all its faults. It is only in America that a black could actually be a serious candidate for the Presidency.

Alexander Chancellor, British journalist: