Once I met a young Texan, across in Britain for one year of his university qualifications. He love England, although the smallness of everything was something of a culture shock. One day, standing in Durham Cathedral, he looked up at the exquisite, soaring roof and said, ‘We-ell. I think we might have the space but you guys certainly have the time.’
Being something of an actor he could imitate of all kinds of accents – from cockney to Scottish to northern and southern Irish, to Yorkshire to Lancashire. However he did say the north eastern accent was impossible to ‘get’. I suggested he started with Scandinavian and moved West from there.
He had some interesting observations on what we take for granted, that in our ambiguous society to say what you mean is out. He observed that false modesty and understatement were de rigeur.
For example at an early meeting, the university drama group were asked what they could offer to the upcoming production. He mistook this for a real question, ‘We’ell,’ he said truthfully. ‘I can act, I can direct, I can build and paint scenery, I can do sound….’ He only stopped when he saw the looks being exchanged in the group around him.
I had always loved American writing, from Tennessee Williams to Henry Miller, from Mark Twain, through Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa M Alcott, Edith Wharton, F Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Henry James, to Alice Walker and the glorious Toni Morrison. Lee knew as much – perhaps more – about Shakespeare than I did. His grasp on English-English literature was strong, I remember a discussion about the vast archives of English literature at the University if Texas at Austin – original archive material at that time apparently being gobbled up by American money. He looked at me with the wisdom, the transparency of youth. ‘We’ell, Wendy,’ he drawled. ‘It’s my literary heritage as well as yours isn’t it?’
As he could trace his ancestry to the Pilgrim Fathers and I can’t get further back than 1895 I definitely conceded that he was right. He has now vanished into the mists of time, having become a trauma surgeon. As you do…
Lee came to my mind last week when I listened to the BBC’s Capturing America Mark Lawson's History of Modern American Literature which led me to the BBC’s American Collection.(Link below)
From this list I chose to listen first to Mark Lawson’s Interview with the John Ashberry – a writer unknown to me. Ashberry’s voice was hesitant as he searched for the right word. Occasionally there was a chuckle in his voice. He was modest but quite firm. ‘I don’t believe in inaccessibility for its own sake.’ But he thought it was a good thing that the reader has to tussle for his own take on a poet’s meaning. The problem of writing over many years he defined as the tendency to strike the same note. Like seeing an old photograph of oneself.
He described how following great writers as ‘going downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push back at your feet.’ He talked about fancy phrases jostled by street language. And how in poetry the everyday becomes fixed and transfixed when language goes off on its own and has adventures in words.
All so inspiring. And listening to it reminded me of the young man from Texas and just how much we all – as readers and writers – owe to American literature.
Hear among others - Edward Albee, John Ashberry, Patricia Cornwell, Done Delillo, Dave Eggers James Ellroy John Irving Joyce Carol Oates Toni Morrison Walter Mosely, Philip Roth, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut. Tom Wolfe