Saturday, 27 March 2010

Writing America and the Young Man from Texas.

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


  1. Well, of course I love this post and your description of the young Texas grad student-- and your luscious cultural comparisons-- not to mention the humor( oops I mean humour) of it all. I am reminded of whoever said " To an American 100 year is old. To a European 100 miles is far" Sooooo true and the source of endless speculation on world view from both sides of the pond.

    Am having a bit of trouble with your BBC link but am going to track it down. Wonderful reading as always-- thanks.

  2. Oh dear-- I should have re read my comment for typos-- I meant " to an American 100 years not year " ......Butterfingers strikes again. Sorry:-)

  3. Wendy, I am delighted to have found your blog today. I like your comments about Americans. I am always amused to see how Americans(Yes, I am one !) are portrayed in English movies and TV. Not very flattering, more in the caricature vein but very often funny.Even the stereotyped American becomes a sterotype in British film. Inevitably loud, wearing either a cowboy hat or baseball cap disdaining the local cuisine,the famous Waldorf salad scene in Fawlty Towers comes to mind.

  4. Such a timely - and thoughtful - post, Wendy. American literature is a rich seam and in recent years, I have greatly enjoyed discovering novels, short stories, poetry and other writing by Joan Didion, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Flannery O'Connor, Marilynne Robinson and many others - each one a revelation. So thank you for the link, which had gained a rogue word but works here!
    I know I'm going to enjoy every minute.

  5. Hello PPR! I hadn't heard of this quotation but it strikes a chord. The link is now correct, thanks to 60/16. Hope you enjoy the interviews. w

    Welcome 'Nadine Says' - so good to see you in these parts. I think we're in tune. I've always thought that xenophobia as comedy is neither clever nor funny. And the use of stereotypes is lazy and timid. This means I'm told by some that I have no sense of humour. (Or humor...) Ah well...

    Dear Boots
    We share so many tastes. I was interested to read recently that the editor of Raymond Carver - whom I also very much admire - had a big hand in what we know as his 'style'. Allegedly. But interesting. Thank you so much for correcting the link -it's now changed. Keep well.

  6. What a great post Wendy- how important what you say about American literature is - so many American writers mentioned here have been such huge influences - for me Salinger was a revelation when I discovered him at seventeen, and if I wanted to look for the perfect model for the short story then where but Raymond Carver.

    As we know from our visit to Bob Waxler's programme at U.Mass - Boston, it is the Americans who believe that lives can be changed through literature - even lives as damaged as those of the offenders he worked with.

    The link to the Mark Lawson interviews is a gift! I have just listened to John Asberry - wonderful!- and at the end of his interview he makes the point you make so eloquently about our shared language - in fact he says we simply often don't know what is English or American.

    Can I just add that I recently read Siri Hustevedt's What I have Loved. I'm not such a fan of her husband Paul Auster (altho I've not read that much so perhaps shouldn't judge) but I thought her book was something very special.

    A x

  7. Mummy, I don't really have anything more to add to these wonderful comments than that you really are fabulous. I've known you since my first breath and your observations still excite, thrill and challenge me. I love seeing things through your eyes. And, contrary to popular opinion, you ARE very funny. In your own way. Love you, Dx



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