AA Gill’s essays The Golden Door: Letters to America are borne of a lifelong association with Uncle Sam — from treks there over the last 30 years. His relatives were early immigrants, including a grand-uncle who lost a leg while fighting for the US Army in World War I.
Gill writes that he took up “a cretin’s errand” at the Hay Literature Festival one year, a debate that touched on one of the themes in this book. Gill defended the motion that American culture should be resisted.
After it was proposed in front of a packed auditorium, Salmon Rushdie went out to bat for the other side. The novelist leaned into the microphone, paused, and crooned: “Bebopalooha, she’s my baby, Bebopalooha, I don’t mean maybe. Bebopalooha, she’s my baby, Bebopalooha, I don’t mean maybe. Bebopalooha, she’s my baby doll.”
The debate, lamented Gill, was all over bar some dry coughing. Europeans like to run down Americans for being crass, stupid and without soul, while elevating culture or great intellectuals, but this is to forget, he writes, that we love watching America’s movies and television series, wearing its clothes and hankering after trips to New York and listening to blues music.
As for the allegation that Americans are ignorant? Thirteen of the top 20 universities in the world are in the United States.
Of the top 100, only one is French, one German. America has more Nobel Prize winners than those two countries, Britain, Japan and Russia combined. Go figure. It is one of several myths that Gill debunks.
“The idea that America is a country without irony,” he says, “is bizarre for anybody that’s read Dorothy Parker, Henry James or Woody Allen or listened to jazz or seen abstract expressionism. The other is that they are naive. Those two things sort of go together. What Americans don’t have is Europeans’ sarcasm.
“The default setting of America is a general optimism. The things that we often mock it for — believing in dreams, being sentimental about people’s futures, that if you work hard and do the right things your life will get better — I am attracted to; whereas, in Europe, we generally think that if things are going well, it’s just because they’re about to go very badly.
“America is a country that’s still building itself. Everything is still malleable. Nothing in America, except for the constitution and some of its pillars of state, like its attachment to religion, is up for grabs and can be remade.
“I like that idea that if you knock a building down, the one built in place of it will be a better one. In Europe, we know almost to a fact that if you pull down a building, what goes up instead will be worse. If you think about Georgian Dublin, we spend all of this time trying to conserve our crumbling past. England is a past master at this hideous nostalgia.
“The fundamental difference between the Old World and the New World is that we know here that the greatest poem has already been written, that the greatest painting has already been painted, that probably the greatest men have already died. In America, if you said I think the greatest film has already been made, they would go, ‘You’re mad.’ America is still a country that believes the best is ahead of them.”
There is much to consider, of course, on the debit side. There are frivolous shortcomings, such as America’s insistence on coming up with dreadful names for new things, for example: Chuck-a-rama (“the worst name for a restaurant [chain] ever written in ten-foot-high letters on a freeway billboard”), Friskies, Cheese-it, Chips Ahoy, Kool-Aid, Softsoap, Wonderbread, Clingfree, Cheez Doodles and Twinkies. And there are the travesties, chiefly its patronising, overbearing foreign policy. America, writes Gill, only has a special relationship with itself.
One of the book’s most interesting passages was prompted by something another great letter writer, Alistair Cooke, a friend of Gill’s father’s, said to him: to understand America you must begin by understanding how much of it is German — 18%, a larger percentage than those of African descent and greater than our vaunted Irish-American community, at 11%.
The great waves of German migration to America came after 1848, Europe’s year of revolutions.
Their absorption into American life accounts, Gill writes, for the righteousness, the aloofness, and the stiffness on social occasions, the fear of nonconformity and “the Teutonic iron way in which America sees the rest of the world”. Like Germany, the identity of the United States comes more from what it stands against than what it stands for.
The writing, unsurprisingly for those familiar with Gill’s TV and restaurant criticism, is dazzling, although he’s prone to some lazy, sweeping generalisations, a habit that has caused offence before. In citing the fact that 16 US presidents have Ulster parentage, for example, he adds the thought that it is “a fantastic over-achievement for such a dour, humourless and unlovable little community”. Ouch.
He is never less than entertaining, though. Among the potted biographies are Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sued his wife’s family for her inheritance after she succumbed to TB at 20 years of age, monies Emerson used to fund a trip to Europe, George Washington, Samuel Colt, and Abraham Lincoln, who stands taller than all.
“You can look at countries and see they come to crossroads in their history, and all too often they fall short of making the right decision, or having a match winner and it can blight countries for centuries. America came to this point with the civil war. It could have ruined America, but this one man stepped up.
“Lincoln was the game changer, a profoundly brilliant man. He managed not just to win for the right reasons, but also to set in motion, before he was killed, the coming together of the two sides so that America remained not a divided country, like Ireland, but a country that went on to become this enormous powerhouse into the 20th century.”