My American Dreams

Article excerpt

I grew up, as a Cambridge undergraduate, under the wartime influences of the Anglo-American alliance. Previously, in my schooldays in Lancashire, I had had very few contacts with either American culture or American literature. I can remember my early reading of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, especially his The Last of the Mohicans, and I did like the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, especially his |Wreck of the Hesperus' and |Song of Hiawatha'. But I left school, in 1942, fairly ignorant of the riches of the American literature, as likewise of the nature and the relevance of the American history, especially in its post-Colonial varieties. It took the exigencies, and the expectations, of my Cambridge years (1942-45) to acquaint me, in any depth, with either history or literature, as far as the USA was concerned. Wartime Cambridge was severely attenuated by shortages of senior staff and research facilities. All new appointments to College Fellowships were suspended |for the duration' (in order not to prejudice in that crucial respect able men who were doing their bit for the country, often in remote or perilous locations). But that did mean, for the few who could continue |in residence', that the incentive for the highest academic distinctions was temporarily swept aside, and for the most part, we went on our legitimate ways, in libraries and lecture halls, thinking far more of the past than of the future, which seemed then mostly to be vague and indefinitive.

At any rate, while I was at Cambridge, I experienced the tail-end of an era of somewhat exclusive privilege, before the deluge of hard-working competition, that came after the war had ended in 1945. Cambridge, in my youth, was encompassed by many American airfields, from which nightly we could hear the planes leaving to bomb Germany, across the level tracts of East Anglia. I have now to confess that as a student I did not bother much about such errands of death and destruction. I was too intent upon my bookish studies, and I was too immature to understand fully what it all meant in human or even international terms. But, even as then -- sanguine and hopeful -- I trod those impressionable Cambridge streets, I could not fail to notice the American sightseers, marvelling at the beauty of the Colleges, and often contrasting their cloisters with the singularity, back home, of such American institutions as Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, or Columbia. I caught from them thhe nuances of the American accents (scarcely at all to be attained then in my own Northern England). So I took quite naturally, as a duck night take to water, the introduction at Cambridge in 1943 of American studies, as an integral part of the Historical Tripos. I was among the very first Cambridge undergraduates to study American history as part of the Degree Course.

At first -- as how I may remember -- Cambridge was short of necessary knowledge and talent in that respect. We had to import -- across the then perilous North Atlantic Ocean -- suitable teachers from the USA. It wa just about the time that the Oxford University Press published, as a pioneering work, America -- The story of a Free People, by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager. Cambridge wanted the former from New York. He sent instead, as an able and effective substitute, his colleague, Henry Steele Commager, from Columbia University. It was from him that I began my studies in American history. I visited him often in his rooms at Emmanuel College. He was both learned and stimulating, if rather intimidating for an unpractised youth. But he did not stay with us for very long, and for my second year of American studies we had a Professor from Texas, Frank Dobie, who subsequently wrote an entertaining if not very profound book about his experiences. He was very entertaining to talk with, but I scarcely missed him at all when fairly soon he was back in Texas. That was at Easter in 1944. Once again, therefore, for the crucial summer term, we were left without an American teacher. …