- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
My discovery of the United States continues. I take a growing pleasure in adding to my acquaintance with an American dimension that Americans ignore and are constantly surprised to find of interest to Europeans, which is the oldness, the growing and surprisingly extensive oldness, of their civilization. “I live in an old house,” and then, hastily, “not old, of course, by your standards.” How often that has been said to me. It was said by a young, vaguely Marxist and highly Europeanized professor at Princeton. I pointed out to him that as he lived in colonial Nassau Street, his house was certainly older than mine, built in 1810, and, just to emphasize the point, that the dean’s building, Nassau Hall, was older by forty years than that in which I taught at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Princeton is not unusual in its oldness. The length of the Atlantic Coast and parts of the interior are dense with clusters of eighteenth-century buildings, not just in such famous beauty spots as Charleston and Savannah but in hundreds of other settlements as well, where, contrarily, they are often neglected and decaying. I have found a disfavored eighteenth-century waterfront quarter in Manchester, New Hampshire; much of Alexandria, Virginia, is Georgian in a raggle-taggle state; the Federalist riverfront in St. Louis, Missouri, is being pillaged for its bricks; Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the most magnificent Georgian townscapes on either side of the Atlantic, is only slowly being brought back from decrepitude.
The language and law that the English and Americans share is delusory: no two peoples on earth capable of intercommunication can be less alike.
To linger in old America, however, or to look for it where it no longer exists, is to misunderstand the continent. Space, not time, I once heard George Steiner reflect in a lecture, is the American dimension. Many of the old cities have lost their hearts because they were built by people who thought at a foot’s pace, journeyed by horse. The vastness of America, for all the heroism of early journeys made by foot or horse into its unexplored interior, demanded other means of motion, the locomotive, the motorcar, the airplane, means of devouring space, not of submitting to it. It is the space that surrounds American cities, the interminable distances between them, that have done for small streets and town squares, felled the shade trees, left the porticoed churches standing amid desolation, driven freight yards and interchanges and airport expressways into the order that once was. It could not have been otherwise. Once Americans decided to command their continent from coast to coast, all three thousand miles of it, to have no internal frontiers, to spend a common currency, to obey, often not to obey, a uniform code of law, to recognize a single government, to be one people, the life of the small city, the shape of the pedestrian neighborhood, was doomed. Traveling America confronted set- tied America, and traveling America triumphed.
I am a traveler in America, and I travel farther and faster there than I ever do at home. In England I alert my wife if I am going down the village street to the post office, decide the day before on a journey to our market town eight miles away. In America, at a publisher’s behest or a personal whim—“I must walk the Malvern Hill battlefield again”—I whirl about the continent. I always travel with elation, looking forward to arrival in new places, old places, looking forward again to moving on.
And yet there is something terrifying about a country, a society, a people that lives not in the dimension of time but space. Time is space for Americans; in England we say “five miles” or “fifty miles” and time our departure accordingly. Nowhere is more than an hour or two from anywhere else. “Nine hours,” Americans say when they discuss a car journey, or “a day” or even “two days.” American space devours time, dominates lives, can consume whole swaths of years on earth. “I travel a lot,” Americans say, or “I used to travel a lot.” Decades of a lifetime have been paid out on interstates, over small airport check-ins, at car-rental returns in Ramadas and Holiday Inns. Space has grayed hair, lined faces, made a history of itself in personal memory, a history of coming and going, stopping over, moving on. It has made a history in the collective life of America, a country always moving on inside itself, never stopping over for very long. The history of America is the history of its vastness, of people’s wandering over its face.
A people who live in space, not time, are different from others, certainly different from the peoples of Europe, and different most of all from the English, seagirt in their tiny gardened island, on whom space scarcely intrudes at all but where history circumscribes everything they think and do. Their transmission of a common language and law to the Americans creates a resemblance entirely delusive. No two peoples on earth capable of intercommunication can be less alike than they. I love America, but I am not at home there. I love the mystery of America, but mystery it remains to me. I love Americans, but even American friends are strangers. America has changed my life. America has saved my world, the European world threatened by two pitiless dictatorships that overshadowed my childhood and growing up. Yet, though I think of America always with admiration and heartfelt gratitude, I go there in a mood of exploration and wonder. Who are they, these people from the great spaces of their continent? They have a secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth. What it is I am still trying to find out.