Speaking American


On Language

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.”

More than a century on, the question of what marks literature as American is even more complicated. I’ve had cause to ponder this question from a very practical perspective, as a British journalist—albeit one who has lived in New York City for the past twenty years. My book Falling Through Clouds tells a very American story, about a young father from Minnesota who struggles in the wake of a private plane crash that killed his wife, badly injured his two daughters, and forced him into a legal battle with a major insurance company; to me, the very name of that company, Old Republic, conjures up vintage images of Jimmy Stewart–era capitalism.

Aside from the obvious vocabulary differences— “windscreen” to “windshield,” “trainers” to “sneakers”—I faced a bigger problem when I started reporting the book. My main character, Toby Pearson, narrated his story with such economy, with such a flat affect shorn of sentiment, that at first I wondered if I could ever capture the momentousness of what he’d suffered.

Consider how Toby related this dramatic scene to me when I asked how Grace, his four-year-old girl, recalled the plane crash: “She said that she did not remember mommy yelling or crying or anything. She only remembered that they were in the clouds and flying along and then a big jolt and suddenly they were on the ground. Then she undid her and Lily’s seatbelt and moved away from the fire. They did not know where Mommy and Charlie were and were scared.” It seems to me that these run-on sentences capture the inflection and thought process of a child, but this simplicity, this apparent artlessness, was how I first received the story. This is the raw material. Toby told me about going to the store with his youngest daughter, Lily, who’d had to wear a facial mask to help heal the scars from the burns she received in the crash. What was that like? “Lots of staring, heads turning, at the stores and anywhere we went. It was pretty tough for me to take since I think I noticed it more. Little kids would point and stare … Several times adults were very rude and one time in particular a guy said, ‘Oh my God, what happened to her? Why does she look like that?’ This was in the cereal aisle.”

I felt the urge, at first, to overwrite Toby’s experience with more superlatives, and heighten the rhetorical style. But this would have been dishonest. The brevity of his expression belied a powerful, emotional subtext. It wasn’t in the words exactly, but beneath them. The simple juxtaposition of the cruel comment with the cereal aisle, to me, already says enough. I realized that for my narrative to be truthful, I had to reflect the way Toby spoke—this wasn’t just a question of style, of changing words. It was tied up with the way Toby saw the world, and the way he survived. It was contained emotion. There was a virtue, a moral force even, in the brevity of his expression. Adjusting to this was almost like learning a new musical language. Maybe this is what Muirhead was getting at when he sensed, in Howells, “a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism.”

I was conscious that this language was American, or at least from a certain, central part of this American continent—the Midwest. I read and reread books, admittedly not all from the Midwest, that would help me understand and refine this voice, this way of seeing: Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But what did they all have in common?

Thematically, they all deal with a sudden death; they belong mostly to the small bibliography of grief. But something else drew me in, too, something to do with their tragic mode of regard and the way it is presented, often with a spare, sure sense of narrative, reflected in a colloquial voice, free of affectation or even excitement. “The story is sad, primal, deeply American. The writing is as clear and sharp as grain alcohol,” is how Daniel Menaker describes William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which is set on a farm in rural Illinois. And although the book is fiction based on fact, the stripped-down style was the music I recognized. It seemed to match the way Toby spoke about his story.

I called Menaker to better understand what he meant by this phrase, and to see if he would elaborate further on the “grain alcohol” characteristic of American writing. He agreed that the Midwestern aspect seemed to him one of the crucial elements of this voice, which he identified in the work of Samuel Hynes, the Chicago-born writer who served as a Marine Corps pilot during and after World War II and later wrote two memoirs (The Soldiers’ Tale, and Flights of Passage)—“very clear and very direct, without being overwrought.”

“It’s as if you were looking through a clear sheet of ice at very hot water … the way to see it clearly is to retain control,” Menaker said. Thus, for example, in So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell writes: “Boys are, from time to time, found hanging from a rafter or killed by a shotgun believed to have gone off accidentally.” To me, what lowers the temperature of this devastating insight is the “from time to time.” Another example with a similarly flat affect, from Maxwell: “My mother died two days late of double pneumonia. After that, there were no more disasters. The worst that could happen had happened, and the shine went out of everything.”

Menaker said this kind of expression is not only lucid, but pellucid: “something just shines right through.” When asked how he achieved this effect, Maxwell likened the reality of what he wanted to express to “polished stones underneath the streams you can see from the surface. You don’t necessarily have to pick them up, but you can see some hard substance underneath the flowing water of the words.”

So a clean line of prose laid over a thought or a feeling was the Maxwell way. Is that the American way? Certainly Mark Twain has it; and Alice Munro’s work—although she’s Canadian—is often heartbreaking in its pellucidity.

Suddenly the geographical precision of my point is sprawling beyond Central Standard Time. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s the sensibility that counts, the tension that exists between the underlying reality and the cool, simple flow of the phrase. And it can be used for comic effect, too, as in Garrison Keillor’s weekly monologue about Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”; and as in the black comedy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, in which the local police chief, Marge Gunderson, apprehends the homicidal Gaear Grimsrud and scolds him mildly for his kidnapping and killing spree: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there? And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper? And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little money. There’s more to life than a little money, don’t you know that?” It’s that tonal flatness, and Marge’s placidity in the face of such bloody events, that makes this funny, and very American. I found, during my reporting for Falling Through Clouds, a similarly black-comic moment when a reporter insisted on designating Toby Pearson the “Second Luckiest Person of the Year,” because his children, while badly injured, had survived a plane crash. First place went to a group of cooks who’d won the lottery.

* * *

An English writer’s relation to the geography of Britain feels familiar. It’s not exotic or particularly dangerous, unless you’re talking Heathcliff and the North Yorkshire Moors; there’s always the reassurance of a church, or a pub, or a field of daffodils just around the bend. But the vastness of the American landscape opens up possibilities, thrilling and threatening, for a writer. At the beginning of In Cold Blood, when Capote sets the scene for the murders in Holcomb, the land becomes mythical, overwhelming, fearsome: “But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.” There’s a grandeur to the landscape that can’t be matched in Britain, a reminder of our contingent status in the larger scheme of things. (In England, we have the graveyard to remind us of this.) American writing often gives us a macro view of the land, the geospatial sense of endlessness. In A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley spends considerable time describing the location of the Iowa farm where the action is to take place: “At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on Country Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road … Because the intersection was on this tiny rise, you could see our buildings, a mile distant, at the southern edge of the farm.” Smiley is as precise as Google Maps—and we see that the landscape is going to surround this story.

When I came to write about Northern Minnesota, I travelled up the North Shore, by Lake Superior, and saw the vast iron-ore ships waiting to enter the harbor at Duluth. I was never more aware of American mythology when I drove up Old Highway 61—the road that runs from Bob Dylan’s home state to the Mississippi Delta—to the edge of the Superior National Forest, outside of Grand Marais. It was here that Toby Pearson and I kicked through the leaves to locate the crash site where the small plane went down, where his wife and brother-in-law died, and where his two girls were found alive. The forest is so vast—three million acres—that to be inside of it defies one’s ability to comprehend it. The pilot who spotted the wreckage of the aircraft from the air, against all the odds, told me he had no doubt that “going down in Superior National’s ocean of trees was just as bad as disappearing in the middle of the Atlantic.”

To me, it’s also this sense of scale that marks a book as American. I asked the British writer Piers Torday for his take on some of these differences. Torday’s inventive children’s adventure The Last Wild was recently published in the U.S.—this eco-thriller, as it’s been called, features a forest—“the ring of trees”— where the hero encounters animals that have survived a deadly disease. And yet, somehow this wild wood doesn’t feel like an American wild wood. Why is that? Torday suggests it has much to do with his childhood reading experiences—everything from Kenneth Graham to C. S. Lewis to Roald Dahl. “There’s a set of stylistic tropes in our children’s literature that feel instinctively British to me. The belief that there’s almost no misery or ailment on earth that can’t be remedied by a hot cup of tea—or supper set on a tray, buttered toast warmed by the fire, curtains drawn tight and small wooden doors firmly shut against the world—whether in Bag End or a beaver’s dam. A yearning for idealized Edwardian domesticity is still very powerful today, that suggests high adventure on a manageable domestic scale is a recurring characteristic.”

“Manageable domestic scale” seems to be the key difference here. Our woods often have people, or talking animals, living in them. I understand what Torday means, since I also grew up with these same books, in those same woods. But there’s another fundamental difference: the American predisposition to look forward to the future rather than back to the past. “I think British writing hovers in constant insecurity over its relation to the modern globalized world. This is part of its appeal and charm to the anxious—not least young children,” Torday said. “But perhaps we are too ready to draw on the balms of the past rather then seriously address the dilemmas of the future.”

In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observed that “lucid writing is the sign of a moral state.” Hard truths, he argues, need to be spoken plainly. This makes sense. Humbert Humbert’s famous line in Lolita springs to mind: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Obfuscation is suspect. Strunk and White’s famous instruction to “omit needless words” isn’t just a journalistic mantra; it’s almost a moral code. I had this in the back of my mind when I wrote my story of the Midwest. I was writing in a different kind of English. It was morally incumbent on me to get it right.

Damian Fowler is the author of Falling Through Clouds: A Story of Survival, Love, and Liability.