English and American stories are as different as their politics used to be.
I’ve never been a fan of American literature.
As with most things people dislike, I disliked it long before I could articulate why. When I was a small kid, I told my mother I didn’t like cheddar cheese by making faces and trying (unsuccessfully) to sneak it into the trash can. I couldn’t explain why I didn’t like it—it just didn’t agree with me at the time. Likewise, I didn’t have a conscious experience of disliking American literature as such—I just tended not to enjoy Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and the other authors I had to read for school. They were boring. They were weird. They were stupid.
My ability to articulate my dislikes grew more sophisticated as I got older and my mind was shaped by more knowledge. In most of my papers in college, I told my professors why I liked or disliked whatever we’d just read (especially disliked; that was how you impressed the professor). I summoned vast quantities of research to justify my opinion. But if my ability to rationalize my taste had changed, my taste hadn’t. I took an English course on satire, and I had to read Catch-22, which I found abrasive and unpleasant. In general, I thought most of the American satire was childish and crude.
In that class, I had an advantage: American satire was paired with English satire, which was very different. I tended to find it funny. I’d always liked English literature—they seemed to have so many more great authors; people whose writing captivated me. A lot of dirty dishes didn’t get washed on time because I was finishing “just one more chapter/scene” of Jane Eyre or Henry V or The Hobbit. It wasn’t a conscious choice; most of the books I liked just turned out to be written by Brits.
Esther Moon or one of Humane Pursuits’ other contributors with an English background could probably explain some of the technical differences that emerged in each country’s literature over time. All I can go by is my own observation—and more recently, I’ve been able to partially articulate (in hindsight) what I think led me to prefer Brit lit.
British literature (to use the more accurate term) tends to be very down-to-earth. Its authors might play with themes, or with language (often brilliantly), but whatever point they had always seemed to be told through the story itself. Most of the time, I didn’t even realize how the characters or stories had affected the way I acted or thought about things until long after. All I remembered was that great story that had so totally engrossed me. Like all great persuaders, the best British authors could influence me without my even realizing they’d done it, because they focused on the story.
American literature, on the other hand, is often more abstract. This is obviously true of 20th century work, but it’s also true of older authors like Washington Irving or Nathaniel Hawthorne. As a kid, I didn’t understand what those men were saying, and since their characters often only existed as vehicles for making their points, the stories didn’t captivate me (i.e. they were “boring” or “stupid”). By now, I’ve learned to love much of Hawthorne’s work, or T.S. Eliot’s (sorry, Brits, he was born here), but it wasn’t accessible—you had to be thinking two or three levels beyond the obvious to even grasp what was going on. The American authors I did like, like Louisa May Alcott or Howard Pyle, wrote more like British ones.
An English professor would probably look at me condescendingly and explain that I just wasn’t ready for the American literature, which is certainly true. But what use is a smart writer who flaunts his genius so that only equally smart people can understand him? A truly brilliant writer is the one who understands something complex and can tell it to normal people so that they too understand. Often, this means a good story; grounding the underlying idea in something real and tangible so that it has meaning and significance. And the beauty of fiction is that you can make a point without someone even knowing you’ve made it. (That was the whole point of those fairy tales you learned as a kid, by the way.) So while the English professor would be right that I wasn’t ready for American lit, it’s also possible that those admittedly insightful American writers just weren’t as good at writing stories. Or, worse, that they missed half the point of their vocation—you don’t make an abstract point by hiding it in something even more abstract.
One other thing I’m now equipped to realize is the way English and American literature reflect their countries’ political development. The British, with their unwritten constitution, their centuries of emphasis on manners, have long been the masters of the real and tangible; their political institutions, their habits, their very national identity are born out of practice (if you wonder why they’re having trouble these days putting their fingers on what it means to be British, start there). We Americans, on the other hand, have become masters of the abstract. We are the country of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our liberals sing of social justice and equality, our conservatives of liberty and American principles.
The tragic irony, I think, is that we’ve forgotten that we came from the British. When those Founders conservatives idolize so much were writing a constitution and setting precedents for the three branches of our federal government, they were relying on the fact that those abstract principles they talked about were being lived out day by day in communities, cities, and states across the young nation. As Tocqueville documented so brilliantly, we loved ideas, but we’d picked up the ideas from our own experience as much as anything else. We liked Locke and Montesquieu because they gave names and legitimacy to things we did naturally. And as Jefferson suggested, the ideas were only as good as that practice of them (like local self-government, where we had a democratic stake even in our neighborhoods). Jefferson might have been a dreamy romantic, but at his best he knew an underlying idea had to be grounded in something real, something tangible, something with meaning and significance.
I wonder if our politics have followed our literature. Our government is far beyond our grasp, and its bureaucratic inner workings utterly beyond our comprehension (most of us like it that way). And the conservatives who would point this out to us do so, much like American writers, by folding that abstraction into other abstractions; the very terms (like “liberty”) the founders used to use. The far-off idea of “the federal government” should be more like the far-off idea of “federalism” or “limited government.” They boast that they have the best ideas, and in a fair fight the best ideas will win sooner or later (I’m reminded of Jack Sparrow saying, “That’s not much incentive for me to fight fairly, is it?”).
But we might do well to remember what our British ancestors taught us: the right ideas and principles are good things, but they’re only as real as they are tangible; only as achievable as they are practiced. Only when our story is close enough to home that our children can learn it—that we can see ourselves in it—does it stick with us and become worthwhile.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.