Amid The Alien Corn, book review by the HG

We’ve had some technical difficulties for quite some time now- the HG cannot sign in to the blog. We don’t know why.  We should get that fixed.  Meanwhile, she sent me this to post for her:

alien cornAmid The Alien Corn: An Intrepid Englishman in the Heart of America (Amazon affiliate link)

by Hugh Willoughby

I’d just resolved to read fewer dated books for a while (I’d OD’d on them a bit) when I stumbled across this book and, well, my resolve crumbled. Willoughby (a pen name) was a graduate student who came to America with his wife for a year in the 1950s and wrote a book about his experiences. He didn’t just come to any university, though; he came to one I’ve got some personal connections to and I was more than a little curious. I’m glad I read it as it ended up being considerably less dated than I expected. Some parts were definitely quite vintage, but many of the problems he and his wife noted are still fairly problematic sixty years later and it was fascinating to see them written about by a non-American sixty years ago.

For example:
1) America’s weird emphasis on knowing facts and data without also knowing their context in the bigger world and definitely without the ability to communicate our information well. We might know things, but don’t know how to talk about them sensibly. That he noted this in the 1950s is really sad when you think about how things are today.
2) Academia is too often the tool of corporations ~ more particularly, the cozy relationship between corporations funding research at the universities and universities feeding them employees/beneficial information sometimes at the expense of impartial academics. He didn’t say this was always a problem, but it certainly made for some interesting dynamics.
3) An over-emphasis on “getting along” in educational settings ~ not that he didn’t things couldn’t be gracious, but Getting Along As The Point Of An Exercise was all too often lauded above the idea of Actually Finding Truth. He recognized that part of this stemmed from America’s socio-ethnic-economic make up (much more diverse than Europe’s fixed one at that point), but he still thought it excessive and not good for academia. I don’t think he would have loved group projects.
4) Racism. This did not surprise me. At all. It was just sad all over again. He said that it was so very jarring when contrasted with all the talking that was done about equality and freedom.
5) So many television sets. He had a short chapter at the end about being in England again and he noted how you see more bookshops in England and “you have to meet a number of English people before you realise just what this means.” Which made me think of my short little week-end in London and running into a Post Office and finding racks of books for sale. My British friend explained that the Postal Service was having trouble making ends meet and so they were using their spaces to sell other things. Well, yes, same with the American postal service except mine is stuffed full with greeting cards and trinkets related mostly to American TV. (and while this example is from 2008, I very glumly suspect that we’ve imported more of our TV shows over there and not as many books from England)
6) Lots of silly educational tests administered to ensure you have the mechanics of things down. He was used to college students and graduate students being expected to simply show that they knew what they were talking about; the assumption was that if you truly understood a topic, you knew how to talk about it. Not in America. He also said the first two years of college seemed to be high school refresher material.

His wife noted that American mothers weren’t receiving the support needed for natural childbirth, nursing, or the early days of motherhood. They had a toddler (that they left in England for the year 🙁 SAD!) and she said that when he was born, she received constant feedback and help on her nursing from the medical professionals at her birthing center.

American homes were better set-up than British ones, she thought, and American men seemed much more involved in helping around the house, making it easier on women. And, yet, she said ~ American women were always busy doing something and she found it odd that they didn’t take daily walks with their children, they instead just turned them outside to play. (this gave me pause. when the weather is nice and the stars in the universe align correctly, I take walks with my children. buuuut I’m also very much a Turn Them Loose In The Back Yard Type).

She also really disliked how food choices worked out… “Much American food is pre-cleaned, precooked, purified, packaged and generally processed. The vitamins annihilated during the treatment are later replaced at vast expense as in bread and milk. I called up the dairy to order milk. what kind of milk? Just milk, you know. Unfortunately they don’t stock just milk. They only stock pasteurised, homogenised, standardised milk fortified with vitamins A and D *and* irradiated by the Steenbeck proess, whatever that may be. (All this is rather typical of the advertisements and general commercial approach over here. Nothing just *is*. It has to be in an audio-visual, stereophonic, thermo-dynamic way.”

That’s a lot of negatives and it makes it sound like a complainy book. It isn’t! They’re both very cheerful and found many things to love in America. Their whole tone is convivial, pleasant, and chatty (probably helped that the base of this book was letters to friends back in England). I just found the criticisms fascinating, for being decades old.

So what were the positives? They loved the hospitality and friendliness of Americans. They loved how relaxed Americans were when meeting new people ~ there wasn’t any stress or nosiness about one’s social status or family background, they just accepted you as you were. This was interesting to read too; I *do* take that for granted.

They found American culture one of boundless optimism and confidence in the future, which was different for them. At this point, of course, Europe was just barely out of two world wars on home turf or very close to and America hadn’t *really* had to deal with that in almost a century. It’s a lot easier to be cheerful about things when your cities haven’t been bombed…

One thing Willoughby noted that he didn’t know quite what to make of: the job mobility in the United States. Nobody thought anything of going from being a farmer to a bank manager to a plumber or being an auto mechanic and then going to university and switching careers entirely. He said in principle he disagreed with this, but that it seemed to work here. This was super interesting, as this theme seems to be popping up a lot in my reading these days, even in places I don’t expect it… the idea of certain structured expectations about individual places being important for cultural harmony and even individual growth. I want to write a real post about it soon… the short version being that when society hollered, “let us all be free individuals, free to do our own choosing!” we weren’t necessarily *wrong* but in some cases we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Willoughby seemed to sense some of this, coming from a place where things were so different. Or were, then…. I admit I don’t know how things are situated in this area in England right now.

There was supposed to be a lovely summarizing paragraph, but Newborn Babe wants to nurse, so I’d best do that…

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