IMAGINING AMERICA by Peter Conrad

IMAGINING AMERICA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Literary travelers from Britain--the Trollopes, Dickens, Wilde, Brooke, Kipling, Stevenson, Wells, Lawrence, Auden, Huxley, Isherwood--and what they made of the U.S.: a biting, brilliantly written, thoroughly jaundiced view. For Conrad's touring or sojourning writers, America is less a hard-and-fast reality than a giant projection of personal pains and desires. In surveying these varied psychic landscapes, Conrad shows a keen, unforgiving eye. Mrs. Trollope journeyed abroad ""to justify her preference for staying at home."" The more sardonically Aldous Huxley distanced himself from California life, ""the more insidiously it converted him to its scientific fads and religious crankery."" Isherwood, he writes, likes America because it shares ""his talent for self-flattering self-excoriation."" Conrad is harshest of all to Auden, whom he observed at Christ Church, Oxford, ""stupefying himself with drink and willing his own extinction."" Auden, he says, left his native land and even his native language behind, not to embrace America, but to hide inside a tiny part of it (New York) as a double exile. Finally, rejoicing in the onset of senility, this ""puling, messy big baby"" returned home to die. Conrad's evident distaste for America and the tricks it plays on the English mind sometimes leads him to skew his perspective with hostile clich‚s (the neurotic isolation of subway riders, the ""featureless deserts"" of the Southwest). And, even worse, he's so wrapped up in his notion of America as an artifact of the imagination that he seems to deny any objective political or social substance beneath the shifting play of authorial fantasies. Conrad's America is a tissue of private myths, and his tendentious aestheticism threatens to trivialize the whole subject. A virtuoso performance, nonetheless, lucidly organized and marvelously articulate.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press