- 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
A flight of twenty-eight hours would not today leave me in any condition to receive lasting impressions of an unknown country on arrival. Yet I remember with almost physical recall deplaning at Boston. Heat of a sort I had never experienced struck as we descended the steps to the runway and was to oppress me throughout the remaining months of an American East Coast summer. Air conditioning, also a new and for a moment gratefully experienced sensation, had an equally oppressive effect. It upset my allergic balance, causing me to suffer violent bouts of hay fever whenever I went through a temperature barrier. So was formed my first impression of the New World. It has—I have not changed this view and I do not apologize if it causes offense—one of the world’s worst climates.
I melted, drooped, and sneezed for the next three months. There were compensations. The first was an expedition to buy new clothes. The Englishmen of my youth wore the same clothes winter and summer: gray flannel trousers and tweed jackets. The day after arrival I descended, with the first installment of dollars my scholarship provided, to the Coop in Harvard Square and outfitted myself with chinos and a seersucker suit. This was an intense excitement. New clothes were still a novel experience for my wartime generation. New clothes that gave one a different identity were fancy dress. I did not quite dare the seersucker suit for several weeks and wore it first when I took the train for Washington at Pennsylvania Station in New York. Late and flustered, I threw my bags into a coach at the feet of two very large and black sleeping car porters, who saluted my appearance with a cry: “Here comes a Princeton man.” I have cherished it ever afterward as a compliment.
I do not suppose that today a Princeton man would stand out; the Princeton undergraduates I knew when I was a Fellow were no better or worse dressed than any other young Americans. America had changed in thirty years. The America, particularly the New York, I encountered in 1957 was a more stratified country than it is today; safer too. I have never encountered anything but kindness in the United States. Statistics seem to show, nevertheless, and Americans clearly believe, that they live now in a violent and dangerous society. Before my seersucker sortie I had spent a solitary fortnight of perfect serenity in New York, in an apartment lent by briefly encountered friends of Oxford American friends. Across the way was a diner where I ate lunch. In the square in the evenings clusters of passersby listened to soapbox orators denouncing the supporters of causes they held repugnant, a mixed bag of revivalists and civil libertarians. During the noon hours I retired from the tropical heat. In the cooler evenings I wandered the streets, sometimes as far as Central Park, forty blocks northward, sometimes just around the corner to Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Town, and down to the tavern called McSorley’s, not yet a tourist attraction. I loved New York then. It was an exotic city, rich with instant friendship, but easy and slow-moving. I wish I could say the same about it today.
I would have lingered longer in New York, but an arrangement made with a fellow traveling scholar, now by chance my brother-in-law, required me to be in Washington by a certain date; it was that which put me at Penn Station in my seersucker suit. He had the car in which we were to set off to the South. He also had an identical seersucker suit, bought at the Harvard Coop on the same day. So outfitted, we set off together in a Ford station wagon one morning in July 1957 to discover the United States.
In a tiny backwoods place, we were mistaken for traveling revivalists—“You-all preachers?”; seersucker suits had a different semiology south of New York.
Sonnenreise the young Goethe called his expedition to the lands of lemon blossom. He set a fashion among young Northern Europeans for expeditions southward that lasts to this day. Neither Maurice nor I was a young Goethe, but we were little traveled, overeducated, abrim with reading about the Civil War, and filled with expectation of what we would find in the old Confederacy. Our journey, I see now, was to be a sort of Sonnenreise , a passage of new and strange and wholly un-European experience, steamy, tropical, alien, alluring, cast through a landscape and among peoples that had no equivalents in the green, chilly, and formal little island from which we had begun.