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Books about America

Richard North on UK writer, actor and travel writer, Stephen Fry:

As he takes us on his taxi-ride around the US, he is not ostensibly defending the place, though in his accompanying notes (in interviews and on his website) that seems to be his mission. It is easier to warm to Mr Fry’s account. He seems a nice old thing. But he has a striking narrowness of mind, best exemplified by the disdain with which he passed by Miami as too horrid to detain him. He sneers too easily. I doubt that he is quite as clever as he thinks, though he clearly has a good memory and has an intense middlebrow love of science.

Brrr, that was venomous! Considering that Mr North dislikes Fry’s sneering, that is quite a snide comment itself. Ouch, as they say. Even so, Mr North has a good review of a number of books written by folk about the US recently. He does not seem very impressed by them.

I still think the greatest book written about the US from an outsider is Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

16 comments to Books about America

  • For me the best quote from that article was:

    Thank goodness for Sarah Palin. Without her, many liberal Americans and their apologists would be forced to see that McCain was their man.


  • Millie Woods

    Living as I do across the Niagara River from the US close to Buffalo I am always impressed at how much wonderful music is available in the Buffalo area.
    People in the UK particularly have a stereotyped view of America and Americans which is unfortunate. It’s as though we in the New World thought of the UK as a yob filled inferno of violence and crime.
    The small Ontario town I live in has a n annual theatre festival which attracts people from all over the world and I have to say after having sampled theatre in London, New York and Paris with good reason.
    Nevertheless trying to separate European so-called intellectuals from their fantasies of the New World as a vast wasteland of knuckle draggers is a lost cause.

  • Liberty

    But North’s comment isn’t snide; it’s perfectly straightforward, and true. All Fry’s talk about the depravity of shopping malls, casinos and any community that lacks quaintness was crudely parochial. No doubt his project was on balance a highly good one, but it’s worth pointing out the stupidity of some of his remarks.

  • manuel II paleologos

    There are dozens of weak books about America.

    When I went over there for a school year in 1987, I didn’t even know what Thanksgiving was, and had never heard of the Grateful Dead. And yet David Frost’s “The Mid-Atlantic Companion” told me nothing of any interest or use at all. It was just full of vapid nonsense about how stupid it is to call a pavement a “sidewalk”. There are hundreds of these kind of books around and they’re all terrible.

    Better was George Mikes’ outdated but still funny “How To Be A Yank”. You don’t see Mikes quoted a lot these days but he was brilliant.

    One of the best I’ve read though was Bill Bryson’s Made In America. Was expecting the usual mildly amusing travelogue, but instead got a thrillingly eclectic tour through language, culture and history, with his special nack for arresting anecdotes.

    Hard to beat any collection of Alistair Cooke’s Letters too.

    Stephen Fry I think probably is as clever as he thinks he is. Opinionated perhaps, but I like that, even when I disagree.

  • But he has a striking narrowness of mind, best exemplified by the disdain with which he passed by Miami as too horrid to detain him. He sneers too easily.

    Ouch indeed! Everyone has certain preconceived notions and a certain narrowness of mind. It is unfair and untrue to claim that Fry’s is “striking”. If he is anti-casino and anti-mall, this just shows that he is sensitive to over-stimulation. Very likely he sees little to detain him in Blackpool or Milton Keynes, either.

  • Giddle

    Liberty’s right, I don’t think he did himself any favours with that series. He looked awkward and had no chemisty or rapport with any of his interviewees. One charming sequence of him gambling with flirtatious old ladies in Vegas culminated in a voiceover describing them as sad, tawdry, pathetic individuals. He came across as a somewhat depressed chap in a taxi, driving across America seeking consolation in food.

  • RAB

    Yes I agree Bookmistress, I went to Las Vagas just to see the spectacle of it, not thinking it was a place to live. I have never been to Blackpool either, but a few almost as tacky places.That’s why I try and not repeat the tackiness experience.
    Frys series suffered from trying to do to much in a very short space.
    All the States in 6 episodes!
    Sometimes I would need a piss, pop off to the loo, and had missed 3 states by the time I got back.

    Some of the series was very good. Yes he loves America, but in a very Wildean way.

    He is very much the European sardonic, cynic in many respects…
    Yes he is as smart as he thinks he is, and is becoming a National Treasure (dont knock it, Gurnin Gordon has sold the rest!)

  • an intense middlebrow love of science.

    love of science is “middlebrow”? What’s that all about?

  • Ian B

    It’s somewhere between eyebrow and lowenbrau.

  • chip

    Reminds me of one of those regular Guardian pieces in which they sneer at some slice of America. One took a swipe at Birmingham, AL, and its eateries, malls etc.

    The obvious comparison was with Birmingham in the UK but that was lost on the Guardian editors.

    Like many British today they suffer from a rather shocking state of cognitive dissonance: ignoring the flotsam swirling around their ankles while mocking the other — in this case an ‘other’ that boasts a remarkably superior quality of life.

  • J

    I doubt that he is quite as clever as he thinks

    Based on everything I have read by him, I suspect that the opposite is true.

    It was a rather odd series, but it did at least give a broad view of the US, not just the “two coasts and the picturesque weirdos in the middle” line.

  • Zevilyn

    I agree with Fry’s views on shopping malls and Miami; malls are soulless, empty places which make me feel despair and depression.

    I see the appeal of places like Georgia, West Virginia, Minnesota, Kentucky, New England, etc, but what Fry disliked about Miami was that he felt it was bland.

    New York and Chicago have a similar perception to London and Manchester in the UK.

    If you’re an intellectual you are more likely to like France, if you are a geek or gamer, then Japan is probably your mecca. Different places appeal to different likes and dislikes, so Fry is bound to favour some US states over others.

  • Paul Marks

    When I watched Mr Fry in Miami the impression I got was that he was commincating the following message.

    “I am homosexual – but that does not mean I am like this lot”.

    My late mother would have liked the style of Miami (the bright colours of the art deco houses and so on) – but Mr Fry has a right to say that he does not, even though “his sort” of people are so strong there.

    Clearly one should not lump all homosexuals together as liking the same style.

    I wonder what Mr Fry would have made of Indianapolis (or rather the centre of it), he did go to Indiania but not to Indianapolis.

    I doubt he would have liked it (although I could be wrong) but things like the World War II memorial, and the American Legion building would have shown him a different side to America.

    Although it may be a side that is dying.

  • Aw, come on, he’s a ‘national treasure’, dahlings.

    It’s probably worth remembering that these series “X on Y” are rarely about Y but almost always about X. Regard: Simon Schama’s recent series on the US, even if he was hobbled a bit by the lowest-common-denominator mentality of the Beeb.

    Fry’s an engaging host, even if he can come across as slightly priggish and occasionally pompous. The beauty of Fry is his Englishness, in all its awkwardness and parochialism. Fry also happens to be a very smart guy and I’d rather watch him on tour in the States than plenty of other high-profile media types. It’s not like some of his admittedly dismissive comments were not without merit. I’m waiting for ‘Beckham on Brooklyn’, although, come to think of it, that sounds quite dodgy …

  • Paul Marks

    I can remember when Simon Schama was an historian. But then he got into trouble with his fellow members of the Society of Socialist Historians (a real organization, I am told) for saying some nice things about the old Dutch Republic and for (horror of horrors) saying some nice things about Britain before the present age of leftism.

    So he moved to cover himself.

    These days all he does is say nice things about the Atlee government (which wreaked chances of a real recovery after World War II) and go on leftist rants about the United States.

    Barry Goldwater a racist – and other lies.