America: From the Outside, Looking In

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.

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:

It is extraordinary how confident and articulate Americans are. I cannot recall ever meeting one who was at a loss for words or who gave the impression of being shy. They must all be educated from an early age in the arts of social intercourse and self-projection. One is struck by this, watching the witnesses who appear before Congress.... Most British people, I imagine, would find this absolutely terrifying, but Americans seem to take it in their stride. Even those who have never been called upon to speak in public on television look as if they have undergone special media training.

Londoner Jane Walmsley on American obsessions:

Ironically, Yanks - with most of life's basic necessities under wraps - are the world's greatest malcontents. They seek perfection, and cannot rest until they've made the best of a bad job. Every bad job. When it comes to themselves and their personal prospects, no effort is too great, no correction or refinement too insignificant, no orthodontist too expensive.

Hungarian composer S'andor Balasse:

The cultural kitsch emanating from your country has colonized the youth of mine. The generation of the 12-22 year olds, brought up on cartoons and dum dum music, have relinquished their own culture and individuality. Their thinking and conduct are like those of metropolitan mobs in the United States. That manipulated, shallow rabble is incapable of taking its destiny in its hands. They can, however, be motivated to regard consumption and entertainment as the goals of their lives.

Spanish film director Pedtro Almodovar:

I knew that even in America life is different from the movies, yet though I was formed by the pop culture in the sixties, I wasn't aware of how it had installed itself in life here. Yes, Los Angeles is littered with bad taste, but I'm not afraid of bad taste. I am excited by it!

A Hungarian woman living in L.A.:

I can recall the exact moment when I suddenly knew I had become an American. We had been living for four years here. Then one day I sent my son to a nearby market for several items, and he returned with a package of green toilet paper. ``Freddy,'' I said impatiently, ``you march right back to the store and exchange this green toilet paper for the pink. You know it doesn't match the tile color of our bathroom!!!!''

British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse on New York City:

All human life is here these days, not there or anywhere else in the Western world: which means that New York can be disgusting, frightening, maddening, cruel. It also means that New York can be uplifting, exciting, enchanting, warm.

British actor and author Peter Ustinov:

In America they interpret American democracy as the inalienable right to sit on your own front-porch in your pajamas drinking a can of beer and shouting out, ``Where else is this possible?'' Which doesn't seem to be freedom, really, so much as license.

Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff:

When my parents and I came to New York, getting a nice, large apartment was a big priority.... The problem I ran into was that I couldn't speak any English, and to make matters worse, I didn't realize that most of the apartment managers in New York City speak only Spanish. There I was, trying to ask if there were any apartments available, and all they kept answering was, ``No comprende! No comprende!'' Finally, I figured out that no comprende must be the English words for ``no apartment.'' So at the next building I went to I said, ``Comprende?'' and the manager said, ``We don't rent to Puerto Ricans.''

A British minister in a letter to ``Dear Abby'':

I like my ministry and I love Americans. But one of the biggest culture shocks I've had to face in your country is the phenomenon of hugging.

Total strangers rush up and grab me as though I were a long-lost relative! Otherwise charming women will clasp me, impaling my cheeks on their flyaway diamond earrings. Even more alarming are the burly males who grip me in a bear hug from which there is no escape.

Abby, I am not a cold person, but such trespass bespeaks a false intimacy. As I had to put it to one clinging vine, ``Madam, a handshake will do.''

French actor Yves Montand:

You want to criticize America? Bien. America is not perfect. But be careful when you criticize America's political institutions. They are the safeguard of freedom on this planet. In our world without America there would be no France!

The above excerpts are from ``AMERICANS: THE VIEW FROM ABROAD'' by James C. Simmons. They are reprinted by permission of Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc. Copyright 1990 by James C. Simmons.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to America: From the Outside, Looking In
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today