“What’s so funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding?,” Nick Lowe once asked in a song. But there’s nothing funny about them, of course, which is why there are times in each of our lives when Hatred and Intolerance bust through our better selves like the Tasmanian Devil. Which is usually a mistake.
But there are rare times when giving in to our lower devils is as satisfying as picking at a scab and watching it come off clean. I suspect Leslie James felt that way throughout the entire process of writing this book.
Americans in Glasshouses is a straight-faced dissertation, written in the voice of a dispassionate scholar, on the subject of what is wrong with Americans and why. The situation, as James saw it back in 1950, when the book was first published, was, at the root, very simple:
AMERICANS feel they are the most insecure people on earth. That is natural, because they have:
- A highly competitive culture in which no one can feel himself to be permanently successful.
- A compulsive need to consume.
- An unhealthy and woman-dominated family-structure.
- No culture.
- A political system which no mature people would tolerate.
- No souls.
- Much more than their just share of the world’s goods.
Ah, to have the confidence of such unadulterated prejudices.
Of course, sixty years later, this is still both stereotype and uncomfortably close to the truth.
James’ aim is “to standardize the diverse impressions about America in European minds.” There is such nonsense written and said about America in Europe, argues this serious-minded academic, and it leaves too many merely confused. If only Europeans could gain a real understanding of America, then they would be able to teach Americans to conduct themselves properly. And what is proper conduct? Why, “in the manner English gentlemen thought other Englishmen should conduct themselves, when England was the leading Power in the world,” of course.
James writes with the power of authority, authority gained from close study and painstaking analysis. He is familiar with all the latest research and an experienced traveler who has seen every corner of the country. This is why he can assure, as he does in one of the many scholarly asides footnoted on almost every page, that, “All people who do not read The New Yorker are forced to live in the suburban equivalent of city slums, referred to as ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ Those who do not read the Reader’s Digest either, are forced to live on the tracks. Neither group is permitted to own a station-wagon or join a country club.”
This is, of course, utter nonsense, and if you’ve made it to this point in the book, you’ve already figured out that this is a book-length counterfeit, as fake as a three dollar bill. And as deft and successful as a hat trick.
It’s clear within a few pages that this is all tongue-in-cheek and artfully pompous. And if that’s all it were, this would have been better done as a three-page piece in Punch. What makes Americans in Glasshouses worth reading after sixty years is that it’s still a good old-fashioned hoot. James’ stereotypes are occasionally a bit long in the tooth (though I guess that cocktail parties are sort of coming back), but always so overblown that it’s hard not to smile:
As is well-known outside America, Americans lack souls. This makes them even simpler to understand. It makes them both simple and simple-minded. (Souls are notoriously correlated with complexity, and therefore with higher mental development.) It is therefore unnecessary to go below the surface to learn about Americans, because most of them only live on the surface.
And it’s impossible for James’ windbag scholar not to let more than a few equally amusing stereotypes about the English slip in:
Everyone in Europe knows that American children are badly brought up. This is because their parents bring them up themselves instead of using nannies and boarding schools.
Thus, reading Americans in Glasshouses comes to seem like a guilt-free vacation from tolerance and understanding.
Copies of Americans in Glasshouses are available on Amazon for as little as $1.98, but you can get electronic versions free at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/americansinglass000094mbp.