Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America

In Across the Pond, Terry Eagleton joins the list of British citizens who have offered trenchant observations on how the former colony is doing now that it's had a chance to grow up. This is a mostly generous and often humorous look at the foibles of the U.S., its pleasure heightened by Eagleton's pointed comparisons to his homeland and to Ireland, where he now lives.

The spirits that animate Eagleton's brief book are those of Alexis de Tocqueville, that "supreme observer of American mores," and Henry James, "who knew both civilisations from the inside and never ceased to compare them." Eagleton, who's taught at several American universities, draws on the writings of the diplomat and the expatriate novelist for a lightning fast survey of some of our most prominent cultural touchstones. He starts with the sometimes inexplicable language differences that divide the English spoken here from its British counterpart, puzzles over our nation's fraught relationship with money ("There is an enormous amount of generosity in the States, but not much of it extends to the financial sphere") and decries a political system in which he claims "the diversity of political options hardly rivals up to the variety of candy bars."

Whether it's Americans' persistence in the face of adversity or our willingness to innovate and experiment, Eagleton agrees we have much to celebrate. Though he's critical of the "constant moralising, sermonising and cheer-leading of American society," the tone of this lively study is mainly one of restrained admiration for "this kindly, violent, bigoted, generous-spirited nation." Yet each observation that will make an American reader square his shoulders with a pride is quickly followed by another that may cause a squirm of uneasy recognition. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

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