Fifty States in One

Art & Lit Literature

Terry Eagleton likes stereotypes; in fact he is on a “one man campaign” for them. I hadn’t expected to be so amused at Blackwell’s eighth-week talk given by the UK’s most influential living literary critic (his Wiki-intro is fearsomely impressive), nor had I anticipated free wine and pretzels. Perks all round. Eagleton’s latest book, Across the Pond, spotlights Americans. Yet some of his generalising comments in the talk were unnerving – a question on why he only focused on white Americans prompted a retort that he wasn’t concerned with “politics”, merely “culture”, which left the States’ Latin American, Native American, Asian, African, and Polynesian cultures all seemingly swatted away. Whilst he did backtrack slightly, I nevertheless began wondering whether Eagleton’s book was geared towards entertainment rather than enlightenment.

His defence of stereotyping held that sociocultural conditioning is bound to engender similarities between a nation’s citizens. Eagleton argued that it is a far more right-wing idea to consider all individuals as being isolated, and his statement that we are powerless in the face of our nationality jarred with me a little. Could the context of society and culture truly impact on the personalities of a country’s offspring as uniformly as Eagleton’s views warranted? His notions of homogeneity seemed reductive, and during the final questions he admitted that he had not investigated divisions between the north and south of the US. At one point he observed the lack of ‘British’ accent, since accents differ widely across the UK. This idea of variation surely must extend to ‘American’ ways as well, but Eagleton appeared to disagree. Instead he argued that America’s (alleged) homogeneity is a political necessity derived from its status as a construct – a mission. Yes, a sense of communality may be integral to a successful nation, but America’s ‘construction’ did not draw from one pool and its people are not homogeneous, as much as it might pretend otherwise. The melting-pot fell through.

Eagleton spoke engagingly on the American power of the will, as displayed in the media (think Gatsby), and apparently ‘can’t’ is as dirty a word as ‘Communism’ in the States. Contrastingly, he described the European mindset as “limitations are what we are made of”. All this over-generalising had me musing on whether Eagleton had rooted around enough in American real life, as opposed to gleaning information from pixels and pages alone. A little research on statistics regarding depression led me to the Forbes website, where America topped the list of countries with the highest rate of depression. According to a 2004 study, 9.6% of the US population were experiencing bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or chronic minor depression over the course of twelve months. Perhaps the affirmative attitude that Eagleton so insistently ascribed to Americans is somewhat more superficial than suggested. I met a markedly pessimistic lady from New York over Easter who certainly did not conform: was she an exception to the rule, or less of an anomaly and just as regular an American? Belief was a pivotal theme throughout Eagleton’s talk. He often set the ‘things will be okay’ nature of Americans in opposition to what he saw as the European post-modernist aversion to conviction. Curiously, Eagleton perceived this as an explanation for the youth’s habit of inserting ‘like’ into sentences, steering them away from the road to authoritarianism.

A panel discussion that I attended recently in London concluded that stereotypes were useful in preventing information overload on a first encounter with an individual: our preconceptions of ‘types’ of people help us in the process of absorbing details of a stranger. However, an unwillingness to rethink attitudes towards a stereotyped group undoubtedly invites problems. Eagleton’s talk made heavy use of ‘the general’ and, whilst his funny anecdotes brought about much laughter, I came away from Blackwells thinking that his work makes for more of a simplified screenshot of Americans than anything deeper.