I’ll admit it: I bought this book because of its cover. That Day-glo orange and blue Manhattan skyline illustration is one of the most visually exciting dust jackets I’ve seen since Helen Ashton’s People in Cages.
But there was more to it. I was vaguely aware of Ethel Mannin as “a popular British novelist,” as her Wikipedia entry puts it, one of the generation of “middlebrows” celebrated on and Lesley Hall’s site. I didn’t realize, though, just how prolific a writer she was until I saw the list of book “By the Same Author”: two columns of densely packed titles in small print. In the course of a 50-plus year career starting in the early 1920s, Mannin published over 100 books–a half-dozen volumes of memoirs, some political tracts, a few on child education, over a dozen travel books, and 40-plus novels.
Having researched a little more into Mannin’s life and work, I find it rather astonishing that her work–particularly her novels–sold so well, since her political and sexual views were far from that of the average British book-buyer of her time. She had affairs with Yeats and Bertrand Russell, among others, organized for the Labour Party until she found it too corrupt and conservative for her taste, married a Quaker who channeled support to Gandhi while he was working against British rule, protested against torture of Mau Mau members in Kenya, and was a vocal supporter of Palestinian opposition to Israel. Ironically, though Mannin was an avowed atheist, one of her most popular novels, Late Have I Loved Thee, about the conversion of an Irish man to Catholicism, came to attention again last year after it appeared on a list of Pope Francis’ 11 favorite books.
An American Journey is the account of a trip Mannin took to the U.S. in 1965. The dust jacket states that, “The author insists that this is not a travel book about America but the story of a journey and that there is a difference.” I suspect this is the sort of hair-splitting that Mannin defiantly insisted upon throughout her life.
Mannin’s American journey reveals more about its author than its subject. Travelling around the U.S. by Greyhound bus, she finds a country bursting with economic and engineering excess–helicopters landing on the roof of the Pan Am building in New York; a radio talk show broadcast from a Chicago restaurant; six-lane freeways and fifty-car pile-ups in Los Angeles. She also tends to see a culture whose worth decreases in inverse proportion to the country’s wealth. She is far more impressed by Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers and Navaho pottery than by the fact that you can order a martini on an evening commuter train out of Manhattan.
And she is quick to spot the cracks in the American dream. A taxi driver taking her to visit a school in a black neighborhood in Washington D.C. tells her that he would rather see his daughter “dead in the river than at a nigger school.” She counters boosterism in Oklahoma City with the following quote from John Collier’s Indians of the Americas: “The local looting of Indians became a principal business in eastern Oklahoma, continuing with brazen openness until past 1925, and not wholly ended yet.” Of attempts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to introduce small manufacturing enterprises on southwestern reservations, she remarks that, “Industrialisation is invariably the answer in the modern world to poverty and unemployment–whether it is or not.”
Through her many, many hours on the bus, she encounters dozens of Americans–black and white, male and female, young and old–but rarely seems to have made more than a cursory attempt to strike up conversations. Of those she mentions, the most common feature is the speaker’s utter ignorance of England or anything else outside the U.S.. On several occasions, she prefers to turn away and bury her nose in the Simenon novel she brought along. In any case, conversation was probably never her strongest suit. Waiting at the bus station in Los Angeles with a friend she had visited, she remarks that, “The grey early morning, when body and soul are only narrowly held together by a cup of coffee, is anyhow no time for conversation, anywhere, in any circumstance.”
For today’s reader, the pleasures of An American Journey are mostly incidental. Mannin saw the U.S. at a moment when you could still ride a Super Chief train from Chicago to L.A. and book its Turquoise Room for a private afternoon cocktail party, while passengers arriving at Eero Saarinen’s space age modernist Dulles Airport were carried direct from their planes to baggage claim in moving lounges that featured armchairs and tables with magazines and newspapers. (Sadly, neither luxury survived long after that.) The interstate highway system was complete, but you still arrived in most towns on a road studded with motels, diners, car lost, flashing signs, and what Mannin, in her stubborn Britishness, refers to as “hoardings” (billboards). If you were to retrace her journey today, you could probably spend every night in a Holiday Inn Express within 100 yards of a freeway after eating the same dinner at the nearby Appleby’s.
I did become intrigued to understand just how such an adamantly radical woman could exploit an adamantly capitalist publishing industry to finance her political, artistic, and personal interests and passions for over fifty years, and as part of this year’s program of reading works by women, I plan to read a few more of Ethel Mannin’s books and see what I can discover.