Are Americans Stupid? Don’t Be Funny, Says Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton first visited the U.S. in 1970. “Hair” was big on Broadway and he was dragged along by some nuns who wanted to get up and dance on stage.

“That would have been my first encounter with American euphoria -- the upbeatness,” he tells me. It’s early on an overcast Saturday and, at the Holiday Inn in London’s Bloomsbury, euphoria seems scarce.

Instead, there’s piped country rock, an Irish bar of the kind usually found only in America, and a Starbucks, whose beverages the Marxist Eagleton has declined.

At 70, English literature professor Eagleton is one of the U.K.’s most prolific public intellectuals. His literary theory primer has been required reading on campuses for 30 years, and in the media he regularly declaims on topics from terrorism to soccer.

His new book, “Across the Pond,” is an occasionally savage roast of all things American, from the nation’s use of language to its failure to appreciate the teapot.

Though born and bred in England, his accent bears traces of Dublin, his adopted hometown. His round face, framed by tilting ears and a fuzz of white beard, suggests an altogether more incongruous realm. Think Yoda from “Star Wars.”

Anderson: What was your earliest encounter with America?

Eagleton: I don’t say this in the book but my first encounter was in the form of a food parcel just after the war.

Being a Catholic family there were a lot of children and we were not very well off. It was a huge cardboard box full of condensed milk and tinned fruit and all kinds of stuff. Maybe I was kept alive by the United States.

Failed Entertainers

Anderson: Anyone who’s ever read “Literary Theory” will be surprised to find you attempting satire.

Eagleton: My family were basically failed Irish entertainers. For a long time I couldn’t get in touch with that. I was what I sometimes call a “YMI” -- a young male intellectual, full of solemnity and high-mindedness.

Anderson: You note how different American humor is. Are you worried readers won’t find you funny?

Eagleton: Well it does worry me, it does. The reception of the actual manuscript was not encouraging. Nobody wanted to touch it. I suppose Americans are not very notable for their capacity for self-satire.

Anderson: Some of your favorite people are American, including your wife. How did that happen?

Eagleton: I was a visiting professor at the Mormon university of Brigham Young. I had a terrible time because it was their job to convert me.

I discovered this little clutch of internal emigres. Willa, my wife, was one of them. She rode to my rescue, telling me what to say because they have this infuriating American language whereby any bullets you fire at them bounce off.

Green Blood

Anderson: What do you find most enduringly alien about America?

Eagleton: The sensibility. They look and they talk and they walk like us in the good old science-fiction way -- apart from the green blood! -- but there’s something about the whole emotional cast of them, produced by their very different history, that is just very different to us.

America is profoundly puritan. Not just in the obvious ways -- knocking cigarettes out of your hand -- but in the moralistic cast of mind.

Anderson: As Brits, what’s our biggest misconception about Americans?

Eagleton: I suppose that they’re stupid. There’s something about their style which leads us perhaps to believe that, and to see a lack of subtlety which may be more to do with concealed depths. They’re not stupid; they’re very bright and inventive and ingenious.

Gosford Park

Their biggest myth about us is that we all live in Gosford Park. They seem to be mildly surprised I don’t have a butler in tow or step out of a carriage.

Anderson: Is there a serious point you’d like U.S. readers to take from the book?

Eagleton: Try to accept seeing yourself from the outside. Not everybody says “awesome.”

Anderson: How do you envisage the U.S. evolving?

Eagleton: Even when the economy picks up, I think we may be seeing the end of the classic imperial stage of America. I hope so. Given the genetic affirmativeness of Americans, that’s going to be tough to take.

On the other hand, given also the bubble-like nature of the States, perhaps their only dim awareness of the rest of the world might come to their rescue.

I am struck by that narcissism and parochialism -- that can grate on an outsider.

Benign Power?

Anderson: As imperialist powers go, America is incredibly benign, wouldn’t you agree?

Eagleton: Well, I wouldn’t actually, though I would agree that it’s often been for what they regard as positive motives. But I think they’ve done a lot of damage.

Anderson: No guilty American pleasures, then?

Eagleton: Watching Judge Judy. She is rather impressive in a grotesque kind of way. I tell people that I go to America for the bacon -- I love American bacon.

“Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America” is published by Norton (178 pages, $24.95, 9.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview is adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera and James S. Russell on architecture.

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