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Posts Tagged ‘America’

Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

Ready_to_portage_around_Lower_Basswood_Falls,_07_1961_(5188003652)

Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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Happy Fourth of July from The Paris Review

July 4, 2014 | by

plimpton fireworks

I always thought it was the best day of the year. It was in the middle of the summer, to begin with, and when you got up in the morning someone would almost surely say, as they did in those times, that it was going to be a “true Fourth of July scorcher.” School had been out long enough so that one was conditioned for the great day. One’s feet were already leather-hard, so that striding barefoot across a gravel driveway could be done without wincing, and yet not so insensitive as to be unable to feel against one’s soles the luxurious wet wash of a dew-soaked lawn in the early morning. Of course, the best thing about the day was the anticipation of the fireworks—both from the paper bag of one’s own assortment, carefully picked from the catalogs, and then, after a day’s worth of the excitement of setting them off, there was always the tradition of getting in the car with the family and going off to the municipal show, or perhaps a Beach Club’s display … the barge out in the harbor, a dark hulk as evening fell, and the heart-pounding excitement of seeing the first glow of a flare out there across the water and knowing that the first shell was about to soar up into the sky.

—George Plimpton, Fireworks

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Grass Libraries, and Other News

December 21, 2012 | by

  • Cornell has installed an indoor grass library.
  • Reading habits across America.
  • Speaking of: writers who do not live in Brooklyn.
  • The OED apologizes for insensitivity.
  • More apocalyptic reading.
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    The Founding Farmers

    February 23, 2012 | by

    Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is the transcription of a handwritten recipe collection that came to Martha Washington through her first husband, Daniel Custis. By the time she received it, in 1749, its value would have been mostly sentimental, not culinary; the old family recipes date from Jacobean and even Elizabethan England. This we learn from the book’s spirited annotator, Karen Hess, whose commentary, published with the transcription in 1981 by Columbia University Press, works like salt: without it, the old recipes, filled with antiquated spelling and vocabulary, would be hard to choke down. With it, the reader—this reader—can’t get enough. (“Lady comes from Old English words meaning kneader of loaves,” Hess writes. How was I muddling along in my floury apron without this fact?)

    Karen Hess, who was given access to the manuscript by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was an instinctive cook, trained at her grandmother’s side between the two world wars in a Nebraska community where the competition to prepare the tastiest supper for the pastor was, by her own account, fierce. Her contempt for the use of flour—“demon flour”!—in sauces was the result of years of cooking and tasting. Her interest in food deepened in the sixties, when her husband, John, a reporter for The New York Times, took the family to Paris for a nine-year stint. France did its thing, and the housewife eventually transformed herself, despite her lack of formal training, into a pioneer of food scholarship. “No other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected by historians as home cooking,” she wrote. “I cannot help but feel that this neglect is also related to the ageless depreciation of the work of women.” In her books she strove to re-create our domestic past accurately, without sentiment. After Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, Hess published annotated editions of several more important early American cookbooks, such as Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife and The Carolina Rice Kitchen, a social history of rice cultivation in South Carolina, with an emphasis on the role of knowledgeable slaves. In 1985, she became one of the founding members of the Culinary Historians of New York.

    The book that launched her career, however, came out in 1977, and was cowritten with John. The Taste of America was a scathing indictment of American food culture in the twentieth century. Conventional wisdom held that early Americans were too busy surviving and fearing God to bother with their appetites, but the Hesses convincingly described a “colonial Eden” in a generous new land where one couldn’t help but eat well. (Though the New Englanders had to work a little harder than the Virginians.) Back then, “local and seasonal” was not a cliché or a trend but a fact. “The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligence,” they write, giving us as examples not only Thomas Jefferson’s Frenchified tastes and habits—a surprising proportion of his correspondence concerned the purchase of wine—but also Benjamin Franklin’s ardent defense of the tastiness of corn (“one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world … a delicacy beyond expression”). By contrast, they cite a New York Times account of Gerald Ford’s habitual lunch: “a ball of cottage cheese, over which he pours a small pitcherful of A.1. Sauce, a sliced onion or a quartered tomato, and a small helping of butter-pecan ice cream.” Eating was, Ford said, “a waste of time.” Read More »

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    Staff Picks: Food Rules, the American Dream

    October 28, 2011 | by

    I turned to a former history professor of mine, Niall Ferguson, for some interesting thoughts on Wall Street: “The American Dream is about social mobility, not enforced equality.” —Natalie Jacoby

    Michael Pollan’s wildly informative Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual gets an update, with new rules as well as illustrations by Maira Kalman. —Jessica Calderon

    What better way to get your Halloween thrills this weekend than with the Bernard Herrmann double features at Film Forum? His marvelously affecting scores were instrumental in making movies like Psycho, The Birds, and Vertigo so atmospheric and disturbing. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

    I’ve been thinking about Galicia lately, what with Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla having just been released by Dalkey Archive, so it was a nice surprise to come across Timothy Snyder’s fascinating history of the region in the latest New York Review of Books. Nicole Rudick

    Ever since I began patronizing NYC’s Treats Truck, I have been curious about the secret of their scrumptious Butterscotch Pecan Bar. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned they are releasing a cookbook! I’ve preordered my copy, and the office will doubtless reap the rewards. —Sadie Stein

    This week I reread Allen Ginsberg’s 1966 interview in The Paris Review and found myself wandering back to the excellent recording of his poem “America” at the Poetry Archive. —Emma Gallwey

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    On Being an American

    June 11, 2010 | by

    Photograph by Jen, CC-BY-NC-SA

    There is nationalism, Arthur Koestler said, and then there is football nationalism, the latter being much more deeply felt.

    But soccer nationalism—soccer nationalism is another thing entirely. For a Brit like Will Frears, English football encodes plenty of thinking-man's-ambivalence about the country itself—its haughty self-regard, its classishness, its sporadic hooliganism. In America, delightfully, conveniently, soccer decodes ambivalence. On the field, the United States is not a superpower but a scrappy younger sibling, not racially strifed but Benetton-harmonious, not stratified by class but unified blandly by a rec-league middle-classness. Soccer isn't war, it's much more self-denying than that, something closer to noble pacifism. Americans have tribal instincts, too, though we check them, and soccer nationalism might be our only form of bloodless imperialism—a chance to root for our country when it doesn't actually mean anything. Soccer loyalty, unlike national loyalty, is lightly-felt and light on its feet; it is a weak nuclear force; it is winning.

    Not literally winning, of course. Over the last generation American soccer has climbed out of the realm of the putrid but pitiful and ascended to discourteous mediocrity. This makes us, somehow, only less loveable to the rest of the world. But being an underdog is perhaps the most cherished position in American sports. Here, we actually like surprises, unlike Europeans—whose leagues feature no playoffs, no salary caps, and punish lackluster teams by actually demoting them, like bad students—and all the more so when we've been along for the ride. Here, we might even prefer surprises to excellence. And being mediocre means we're only a lucky break from attaining decency.

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