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Posts Tagged ‘national identity’

Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.


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 »


The Beautiful Game

June 11, 2010 | by

In the World Cup, the team is the country, and the country is the team. Photograph by Nick Wiebe.

A few Saturdays ago, Inter Milan, an Italian team without any Italian players that's coached by a Portuguese, won the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, a German team, coached by a Dutchman, whose two best players are Dutch and French, known in Germany as FC Hollywood, by playing that most Italian of games: Il Catenaccio.

Catenaccio translates loosely as door bolt. It is Italy’s gift to the world game; it is anti-space, anti-movement and it seeks to corral the match in the defensive third of the field. It’s how they won the last World Cup. In tandem, that is, with being fitter than anyone else. They simply wore the other team out by making them do all the running and then scored in the last ten minutes when the other team was knackered.

Inter’s victory can confidently be described as Italianate in the sense that it is in the Italian tradition, but can it be called Italian? It is an Italian club in an Italian city owned by an Italian and supported by Italians. On the pitch itself though, these are foreign mercenaries representing Italy (an idea that complicatedly makes the Inter team more-rather-than-less Italian in a Swiss Guards, Borgias are actually from Spain kind of way). Would it have still been an Italian victory if the soccer itself had been less Italian in its style; if Inter had played like Barcelona would that have made it a more or less Italian victory? Does Italian heritage and Italian style outweigh the complete lack of Italians playing in the actual game itself?

These questions do not present themselves in the World Cup. In the matter of national identity, the World Cup is very simple: the team is the country, and the country is the team.

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