The American Century

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At the turn of the century the Court was a highly reactionary body with a pronounced political bias, usually in favor of property rights over human rights. Then it began to change, in part because Presidents started to make better appointments to it but also because it came to serve as a sort of national arbiter, as a lightning rod for issues that the rest of government and society found too hot to handle. You see this with the Warren and the Burger courts in particular, in civil rights and civil liberties. One man, one vote; abortion. It has been a very important role, but the question does arise of how far this can go and how much we are just pushing unpleasant questions over to the justices.

As an immigrant yourself, what did you expect to find about America and how did it live up to your expectations?

When I was a boy growing up in England, my image of America was one of cornucopia and gigantism—a fat, flamboyant, adventurous country. You have to remember, this was wartime England. My mother did all the washing by hand. We were on rations—one egg a week. We had no electric kitchen. To make toast, we held the bread over a coal fire.

America was an abundance of material things, but it was also the voice of Roosevelt coming over the radio during the worst days of the war. Churchill offered hope, Roosevelt certainty. America the invincible. My God, could I ever come over and take a look?

 

And you did.

And I did. I came here in 1956. The first apartment I stayed in, on West Twenty-third Street, was with a friend of a friend named Herb, who made coat hangers for Seventh Avenue and had a system that piped Bach into the apartment all day. It really did seem to be the pinnacle of civilization. Later, on the road for months, I was awed by the distance and space, by the muscle of the country.

Now that you’ve had a longer look, what has impressed you—or dismayed you—the most?

Well, I am an American by choice, but I am passionately British at the same time. As an expatriate you always find things not to like in your new country. For me it’s the dehumanizing architecture, the monotony of the strips and shopping malls. But I am also seduced by the eagerness of commerce. I like it that people scurry around trying to meet your needs. When you order breakfast from room service or buy something, the American habit is always to ask, “What else? What else?” No wonder the country throbs with activity.

At the same time, I find it enormously liberating to live in a country where you can be who you are and what you have accomplished instead of being immediately typed by where you were educated or what caste you are from. You know, my grandfather was actually illiterate, something I’ve always been reluctant to talk about. But over here it’s almost a badge of honor to have risen farther. Here you can make yourself over more than anyplace else in the world.

Yes, I sometimes think that the stupidest thing ever said was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line that American lives have no second act.

Absolutely. Third, fourth, and fifth acts are more like it. You see again and again how people reinvent themselves. Nixon, over and over. FDR, going from a rather effete, dandified young man to this robust figure after his polio. Or the transforming courage of someone like Rachel Carson, a quiet academic sort who wrote some very good books about the sea and then sat down at her typewriter and started this whole crusade to save the environment. It’s really very brave in the end. Here she is, a middle-aged woman, dying prematurely of cancer, wearing a wig because her hair is falling out from the treatment, knowing that this book, Silent Spring , is going to be her last, but writing it for the sake of the future.

We have an amazing photo by a Pvt. Igor Belousovitch that is the very first glimpse of the Russians that American troops had at the end of World War II. Everyone knows the picture of the Americans and Russians shaking hands at the bridge at Torgau on the Elbe, but in fact that wasn’t the first photograph. The real first photograph lay for more than forty years in Private Belousovitch’s drawer, and we tracked him down. He took a photograph of the Russian cavalry just coming over the horizon while he was on patrol.

The amazing thing is that the private who took this photograph—this unique and historic photograph—spoke Russian. His mother and father had fled the Bolshevik Revolution; otherwise he might have been a Russian riding a cavalry horse toward the Americans. Now there’s a second act.

You don’t hesitate to criticize the United States when you think it’s necessary, but you’re also very ready to celebrate its triumphs.

Yes, well, when it works, it works marvelously well. The optimism of this country is infectious. I have come to understand in America that the impossible just takes a little longer.

At the same time, there are these terrible paroxysms of unreasoning popular feeling, like the McCarthy period or when Japanese-Americans were interned at the beginning of World War II. Then, just as one is in despair, a sort of intellectual 7th Cavalry comes to the rescue. Just as you have social Darwinism and laissez-faire sweeping the universities at the turn of the century, over the hill come people like Lester Ward and John Dewey and the rest of the pragmatists. Just when the country seems sunk in despair and out of ideas during the Great Depression, along comes Roosevelt’s New Deal and then the GI Bill—a tremendous period of innovation that transformed the whole society.