In this fun essay, the English literary critic Terry Eagleton offers his take on the American character, both good and bad. I liked these parts especially:
For puritan types, appearances must correspond with realities, the outer presenting a faithful portrait of the inner, whereas irony involves a skewing of the two. To the puritan mind, appearances are acceptable only if they convey a substantial inner truth. Otherwise they are to be mistrusted as specious and superficial.
Hence the familiar American insistence that what matters about a person is what is inside. It is a claim that sits oddly with a society obsessed with self-presentation. There is no room here for what Lenin called the reality of appearances, no appreciation of just how profound surfaces can be, no rejoicing in forms, masks, and signifiers for their own sake.
In The American Scene, James writes of the country’s disastrous disregard for appearances. For the Calvinist, a delight in anything for its own sake is sinful. Pleasure must be instrumental to some more worthy goal, such as procreation, rather as play on children’s television in America must be tied to some grimly didactic purpose. It can rarely be an end in itself. The fact that there is no social reality without its admixture of artifice, that truth works in terms of masks and conventions, is fatally overlooked.
Yes! This somewhat explains the conflict between my sister and me. Ruthie had a strong Calvinist streak, in the sense Eagleton mentions (but, note well, she was a south Louisiana woman, so we’re talking “Calvinist” in a highly relativistic sense). As her best friend Abby told me, Ruthie hated anything she considered “extravagant.” What’s more, Ruthie had a distrust of cleverness. This, by the way, explains somewhat the conflict between my moralistic father and his hedonistic brother. It’s a fascinating theme that runs through different generations in our family.
Americans are concerned about sin, and the British about bad manners.
In this, the South is, broadly speaking, more British in this way. Good manners cover a multitude of sins. Bad manners are a sin.
For me, the most anxiety-producing part of living in the North was the sense that manners don’t matter as much, and that they are even a bar to authenticity. It is really hard to convey to Northerners how important manners are taken here. Northern travelers tend to think that Southerners are making fun of them, or patronizing them, when Southerners call them “sir” or “ma’am,” and treat them with what seems like extravagant politeness. That’s just how we’re taught to treat everybody. That’s how we treat each other. When I was in Orange Beach, Alabama, last week, I kept noticing how polite people were in the stores, in restaurants, and so forth. It’s not just that that’s how a tourist town rolls; I lived for three years in Fort Lauderdale, which is not in the cultural South, and people didn’t behave this way. It’s not that people were rude in FTL, only that the highly mannered culture of the American South didn’t obtain there.
Of course, Northerners may say that Southerners think themselves good people even if they do bad things, as long as they display courtesy when acting like a knave. There’s something to that criticism, I agree. But on the whole, manners are conducive to social ease and liberty because you always know the correct way to behave.
More from Eagleton:
The centered, repressive, self-disciplined ego of production and puritan values is at war with the decentered, liberated, consumerist self. The two cultures can negotiate compromises from time to time, but there is no possibility of a perpetual peace between them. In some ways, their respective inhabitants are as alien to each other as Borneans and Berliners.
Dead on. We Americans celebrate the pornographic chick-lit Fifty Shades Of Grey, but give Paula Deen — who, interestingly, made her fame and fortune by promoting cornpone culinary hedonism — the Hester Prynne treatment for transgressing the holy. The trick to negotiating public life in America today is knowing how to negotiate the overclass’s ever-mercurial sense of vice and virtue. Things in our country can rarely just be, or be ambiguous. Everything is moralized — and there are no moralizers more Puritanical than the kind of people who imagine themselves opposed to everything the Puritans stood for.