Christmas Sixty Years Ago: An American Odyssey

By Wright, Esmond | Contemporary Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Christmas Sixty Years Ago: An American Odyssey

Wright, Esmond, Contemporary Review

After graduating at Durham and acquiring a teaching diploma in 1938, I then won a Commonwealth Fellowship, to study in the US. Commonwealth Fund Fellows were 24 in number and appointed annually, with a requirement that they should spend their first summer vacation on an extensive tour; books and scholarship were seen as less important, though we got an occasional and very welcome cheque for any extra books we might need, in addition to our lavish stipends. We sailed first class on the good ship, the Cunarder Scythia. Marcus Cunliffe said that we were treated so generously that the Fund thought we were princes, travelling incognito. We were given four splendid days of sight-seeing in New York; we saw the Rockettes pose and dance on the world's largest stage in the world's largest theatre (theater, should we spell it so?), heard the chorus of the I. L. G. W. Union sing 'New York? Give it back to the Indians', learnt something of the complexity of the city's geography, that 'New York, New York is a wonderful town, the Bronx is up and the Battery down'. And I met a former Fellow who dropped in on the Fund for lunch: Alastair Cooke. I recall the chairman's sad comment on him afterwards: 'it looks as tho' Mr. Cooke is going to be a journalist.'

One feature of our Fellowship was that we should spend the summer travelling round the country, to get to know it from real acquaintance and not just from books. For this we would be given one thousand dollars to buy a car and pay the travel expenses. Since I had not driven a car as a student in Britain, I persuaded the Fund to allow me to buy a car as soon as I arrived in Virginia, so that I would be familiar with it when the summer came. As Virginia's splendid climate made a garage unnecessary, I made a good case. They agreed, only to discover that Virginia did not have driving tests and so they suggested I ask the local police to give me a certificate of road worthiness. The Fund were worried over my safety, and conscious that I had a widowed mother to support. The local police were amused by my request and made great play with the danger that I would drive on the wrong side of the road. They duly gave me a chit - without any test or evidence of my skill behind the wheel - and happily I never had an accident in all my motoring in the US. And (as I often reflect and surprise myself at the thought) in all my driving I never once took out insurance against accidents.

My possession of a car was, however, an asset. I paid a fortnightly visit to Richmond, going down US 250 - an hour's drive, to see the book-editor on The Richmond Times-Dispatch, to become a book-reviewer and to have the honour of meeting and occasionally dining with the paper's distinguished editor, Douglas Southall Freeman, a well-known daily radio broadcaster on the world scene, and himself a remarkable biographer of four volumes on Robert E. Lee. It represented the beginning of my book collecting, which has not ceased; and I also made a monthly visit to Fairfax County and Washington DC, a two-hour journey. I came to know Virginia, Albemarle and Fairfax Counties, Monticello and the Skyline Drive with its vista over the Shenandoah long before I attempted longer journeys in the Deep South and in the West. And I think I had done wisely to buy a car early, though I used it rarely in Charlottesville itself; I lived an easy 10 minutes walk from the Lawn and the Rotunda: to adapt the local advertising phrase, Virginia is for walking as well as for loving.

I came to treasure special places in Virginia as well as Charlottesville and Richmond. One of these was Lynchburg, for we made regular weekend visits to see the girls at Sweet Briar College - the University of Virginia in my day was whites only and male only (except the graduate and some of the professional schools), so regular excursions were made to Lynchburg (for Sweet Briar) or to Roanoke (for Hollins Women's College). 'Goin'd down to Lynchburg town, to carry my tobacco down. …

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