The Origin of American Studies in Britain: One Man's View

By Wright, Esmond | Contemporary Review, December 1994 | Go to article overview

The Origin of American Studies in Britain: One Man's View


Wright, Esmond, Contemporary Review


My career has not been confined to universities but was interrupted six years of war service, four of them in the Middle East, and by three and a quarter as a member of the House of Commons. Moreover, in my undergraduate years at King's College, Newcastle, in the University of Durham, to which I went as an Open Scholar from a local grammar school, no American history was taught, nor was it in any serious fashion at any of Britain's universities except London. Indeed, when the First Class Honours that I was awarded in 1937 carried with it a graduate scholarship to New College, Oxford, it was expected that I would go on there to continue the study of the administration of Warren Hasting's Bengal (1772-1774) that I had begun as my thesis requirement for my undergraduate degree. Not that the subject was so strange. In the college library there were papers on Bengal to be explored, and at school my 'special subject' had been 'British' India, that is, when translated, the story of the British East India Company since its foundation in 1603. If I had a dream, it was of a career in the Indian Civil Service.

When, instead, I applied for and secured a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship (since the donor's death in 1959 renamed the Harkness Fellowship of the Commonwealth Fund) and chose to study at the University of Virginia, I was breaking with tradition, and, aged twenty-two, beginning the study of United States history as a novice. As far as I can remember, in my undergraduate years, when essays were required fortnightly, I wrote only one on an American theme: 'What were the causes of the War of American Independence?'. I sought to take what was then an unfashionable line in ascribing the 'blame' to a 'few hot and designing men' in Boston. Handled more skillfully or with greater good fortune would Independence have come then, or even at all? Cynics might say that, under many different titles, I have been embroidering the same thesis in extenso for some fifty years. Not until I walked the Lawn at Charlottesville and tried to recapture the hopes of its founding father, Thomas Jefferson, did I know that I was in fact the first Harkness Fellow to study south of the Mason-Dixon Line -- once I had grasped who Mason and Dixon were, and what that frontier's significance was in nineteenth-century American history.

Hitler and Mussolini intervened, for me and my generation. I abandoned plans for a doctorate and settled for a master's degree, conferred on a memorable and sunny day, June 5, 1940, and by no less than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had agreed to come to confer a degree on his son, Franklin Jr., who was a student in the Law School. Mussolini had declared war that morning and struck at a France that was collapsing. FDR's Charlottesville speech was stirring and historic: 'The hand that held the dagger has stabbed it in the back of his neighbour'. He praised Churchill lavishly. When my name (and my place of birth) was read out, and I stood in answer -- because of his polio the President stayed seated, but gave me a special grin and 'Bravo', I felt not only honoured but embarrassed by the cheers. To acknowledge them I turned to bow. Behind me I found a big White House policeman on patrol and carrying a revolver who, equally embarrassed, said 'Say bud, Congrats.' and shook my hand warmly, to the audience's and FDR's amusement. Next day, on the Lawn where Franklin Junior was holding a party, he said that the President had told him to 'tell that young Englishman that he got his degree from the President of the US and not from a policeman!'.

I sailed in the summer from Canada -- the US being then neutral -- into an air raid over night-time Liverpool, with shrapnel falling like heavy confetti on the deck. It was my sharp introduction to six years of war: square-bashing in Yorkshire with the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, then Intelligence in Cairo and points east and west, and, after the shooting stopped, a period in the Royal Army Educational Corps. …

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