“What Sort Of People …?”

The ability to see ourselves as others see us was one of the less sagacious yens of the poet Burns. Happily for the sensitive among us, geographical location and linguistic sloth combine to protect Americans from the candid criticisms of foreigners and foreign journals. (The domestic “death-wish psychosis” so percipiently discussed in this journal two issues ago is, of course, a quite different matter.) A few of such alien strictures have come my way recently, and I’m still trying to figure out what they do to the American mystique.

One foreign friend shook me to the core by uttering some appalling generalities about Americans. So outrageous were they that I sought his permission to publicize them. At that point he rocked me still further by stipulating that I must not reveal his name as he still has relatives in these United States.

The burden of his song is that all Americans abroad, whether from Barre, Vermont, or Steamboat Springs, Colorado (honest, he mentioned those two), feel themselves called to spread one message—not that America is good or bad, but that America is unique. He claims to have perfected a formula guaranteed to stop Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews in full flight. When they become more than usually bouncy and insufferable, he makes a remark that links Americans with nationals of another country. “Spaniards and Americans,” he will say casually, “do not know the first thing about making tea.” Then, for an encore, “Americans and Persians are never good listeners.” The response, he assures me, is most gratifying—only a little less, in fact, than when he points out that “God Save America” is a Russian hymn.

Then there is one E. S. Turner, evidently domiciled in England. “It’s a fallacy,” ...

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