America Illusion And Reality

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To the poor and downtrodden peasants and workers of Europe it held out a new hope, a glittering image of riches and freedom. It is easy to forget the bitterness and brutalities of the ghettos of Europe or the starvation and deprivation that the wretched villagers of Greece and Italy suffered. It was their despair that eventually drove them to the coffin ships in which thousands died as they made the Atlantic crossing. The reality they found in America was harsher: hunger stalked on the Lower East Side; once more deprivation for many became part of their lot in life. And yet there was a reality in the illusion. There was more liberty, more social hope in America than in the lands they had quitted. There still is, in spite of the black ghettos and the long-enduring memory of slavery. The destruction of primitive peoples and slavery are the harsh realities of the American experience, for whose nakedness the Constitution, with its proud declaration of liberty, proved so pathetic a rag. So often illusion provided hope, reality the fate. And yet whatever the American experience might be, it remained for most Europeans an exotic continent.

After Buffalo Bill’s fabulous success small boys in Riga, in Manchester, in Lyon, in Milan, played for generation after generation at cowboys and Indians; in the twentieth century Hollywood provided the dreams for the masses, and Disney captured the imagination of the child. No longer a fairyland of exotic peoples, animals, and plants, America has created a new world of fantasy.

In the lives of children, in the dream time of adolescents, even in the sexual expectations of the adult world, America still feeds Europe with its illusions. As with the illusions of the past, a harsher reality is always breaking in: the drugs, the dropouts, the divorces. Perhaps the tobacco plant with its vivid flowers, intoxicating scent, and deadly leaves should be the enduring symbol of that strange combination of illusion and reality with which America has continued to haunt Europe since its discovery.