Fulbright

Honey Boo Boo, Bill Nye, and Views of Americans

Last year as a Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway it was my job to answer lots of questions about the United States. Norwegians are in many ways intensely familiar with the U.S.—from television and movies but also from personal experience and/or having relatives in the U.S.—but in other ways there often was a deep divide between what Norwegians expected of an American and what I represented to them. For example, some of the questions I was asked were what I would have anticipated, “Who did you vote for?” “What do you think of the current president?” Others were a little more surprising but somewhat understandable, “Do you have a gun?,” for example. And sometimes I was simply astounded by the perceptions that came at me. One teacher that I worked with asked if I minded taking the stairs to class. I said that of course I didn’t mind, thinking that she was asking in case I had trouble with stairs because of health concerns she couldn’t see by just looking at me. After I answered, she looked at me and replied, “I thought I should ask because you are American.” Or take the case of a very sweet student who came up to be after class and said as politely as one can say this that she was surprised because I seemed so “normal.” I asked her what she expected me to be like, and she blurted out, “Honey Boo Boo.” No shade to Honey Boo Boo, but we don’t have that much in common.

There have been many times when I’ve hit my limits with people’s perceptions of me and become frustrated and annoyed. Luckily, I have some really good friends who will listen to me complain about this when I need to. But mostly I think (I hope) I manage to be open and not too defensive.

One big piece of helping me think through all of this is that many of these views are not just based on individual encounters with Americans but also on the way that my country has acted on the world stage since the end of the 2nd World War. That is a topic for another day, or another lifetime, but worth at least noting now.

The thing I wanted to write about today, though, is how much this view of Americans now reminds me of similar exchanges from the nineteenth century. As a scholar of that time period, I’ve read a lot of novels where brash Americans and cultured Europeans just don’t quite get each other. It’s sort of funny to think that these big cultural generalizations haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

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Bill Nye

I was reminded of this again recently when I was reading the newspaper columns of Bill Nye. Bill Nye, in this case, is the nineteenth-century humorist and not the science guy. (I have written more about him here.) I’m working on a slow-going article about Nye and how he uses regional humor to connect his readers into a group based not on location in the nation but on access to and participation in print culture. As I was sorting through Nye’s newspaper articles that I might use, I stumbled upon one that made me laugh because it addressed exactly this American culture/European culture divide that I have experienced in Norway, but it does so in an unexpected and odd way.

In this newspaper article, Nye jokes about how he thinks that more European thinkers would be more partial to American writing if they had the chance to read writing about baseball. The joke here is that baseball writing is very colloquial and lowbrow, exactly the thing that high culture thinkers would not be swayed by. In the beginning of the column, Nye directs his comments specifically at Matthew Arnold, who was famously unimpressed with American culture. As just one example of Arnold’s views, here is a quote from Arnold that Amanda Adams writes about in her article, “The Uses of Distinction: Matthew Arnold and American Literary Realism.” Arnold wrote about his visit to Chicago, “That which most impressed me…was a certain assumption of culture, which, upon close observation, I found to be very superficially varnished over a very solid basis of Philistinism” (37). That is pretty much peak Arnold and gives a taste of the context in which Nye was writing his article.

Nye writes that Arnold would not view Americans as such a “vulgar people” if he had been able to read more of their great sports writing. Nye is touching on the fact that baseball itself is a particularly American sport that Arnold would probably not appreciate and also that baseball writing is quick-paced and written in haste. It is certainly not the labored over words of the artist.

This is an illustration of Nye’s idea of good baseball writing:

“it looked rather rather [sic] equally for the Giants, for instance, till Slattery jolted merry thunder out of the horsehide, tore the tar out of the willow, smashed the leather, and then, while the Phillie fumblers were pulling dandelion greens beyond the Harlem, the Metropolitan infielder lit out like future punishment beating tan-bark accumulated a one-bagger, a two-bagger, and a three-bagger, straightened himself out like a long-waisted jack rabbit across the plate and made his royal red homerun just as the New York Central got in with the ball and the band played, ‘Tommy Make Room for Your Auntie.’”

This description he imagines illustrating not to Arnold but to Lord Tennyson and ends his musings with “I think Alfred would like that.” I’m butchering Nye’s jokes for description purposes, but in the context of the column this line still makes me laugh more than 100+ years after it was written.

Nye finds that he can imagine that Tennyson would have quite a great time, really, with American baseball prose “unless he has a foolish prejudice against American writers.” This is Nye’s most insistent dig—that maybe if you have made your mind up about what you will find in a certain place/person/text that is what will you will find there. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to consider. (And I’m sure that Nye and I could use that advice just as much as anyone else.)

Works Cited

Adams, Amanda. “The Uses of Distinction: Matthew Arnold and American Literary Realism.” American Literary Realism, vol. 37, no. 1, 2004, pp. 37–49. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27747151.

Nye, Bill. “Bill Nye on Baseball.” The Philipsburg mail. [Philipsburg, Mont.], 17 May 1888. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025320/1888-05-17/ed-1/seq-4/

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Casting Pillars into the Sea

IMG_0027A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a hill in Reykjavik reading a mystery novel. I was in the middle of a 12-hour or so layover. And while I had the energy to get myself from the airport into the middle of the city, my brain was not feeling up to a museum and my body was not feeling up for any more walking. So I was sitting and feeling slightly guilty that I wasn’t doing more with my layover and also slightly satisfied to just be sitting in the sunshine.

But after a little time on the hill, I realized that I picked the perfect spot to relax because it was also a place that tour guides passed through and stopped to tell the story of the founding of Reykjavik. I got to sit and hear a bit about the city and read my book in the sun. Adding to that bit of serendipity was how wonderful the story of the founding of Reykjavik is. Ingólfur Arnason, a Norseman, was looking to leave Norway because of a feud he was involved in (that part’s not wonderful), so he left Norway and sailed toward Iceland. From his ship, he cast pillars from his old home into the sea and followed those pillars as they washed ashore on the land that would become Reykjavik. Although he was searching for a place to settle, his new home found him too.

As someone who doesn’t really believe in destiny or fate, I still felt a swell of sentiment at this story. I imagine like most good stories of beginnings, this one is only somewhat true. But the stories we tell about ourselves, whether they contain a bit of fiction or not, are so central to how we understand our world. And how lovely is it that the residents of Reykjavik get to live in a city not just happened upon but chosen by a little magic?

This is all a bit of lead up to say that while I had planned to go home after my Fulbright year (home being roughly the continental 48 states), through some decisions made by me and some made by the universe, I have found myself back in Norway, in Bergen to be exact. I don’t quite have the pillars of Ingólfur Arnarson—his pillars apparently signaled that he was a chieftan and I’m not that fancy—but as I have landed in Bergen, I have decided that maybe, just maybe I’m here for a reason.

So, I will be reading and teaching and trying to write more from this beautiful place for awhile.

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