I’ve mentioned it before, but in a scholarship interview to go to the United States to study I was asked to related how I would sum up my idea of Scotland for a curious New Yorker. Social justice and hardcore techno, I said.
I didn’t get that one, funnily enough. But after I honed my interview technique. I did end up going to study in the United States. I started on a J1 student visa before moving on to an H1B visa for foreign workers in specialty occupations which require highly specialized knowledge. [See picture above.]
I ended up spending what, to date, is the majority of my adult life living and working in the United States. I would never have expected that. As a wee Scottish boy growing up in the ‘eighties, I was instinctually sceptical of the US. But the attraction of the idea of studying abroad was too much to resist, and I didn’t get much traction with the great educational institutions of mainland Europe.
I didn’t learn much German, but I did learn that the US was a huge collection of county-sized states populated by all sorts of people, not just the folks I’d seen on the telly. As I stayed there longer, I learned about the history of political and legal thought there and realised it was a much richer tapestry than I had imagined. I read Thomas Geoghegan’s memoir of a union lawyer, and Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. As I revisit the dust jacket of the second, I seems terribly predictive of how the academic Left giving up on (the best traditions of) the United States amounts to a collaboration that cedes the ground of action to the Right.
Rorty decried the loss of the great tradition of democratic intellectual labor that started with Walt Whitman and John Dewey. Back in Edinburgh, I see how that 0.5% of me became one of the innumerable type of American when I think that a piece of fiction I was working on yesterday revisited – however clumsily – Whitman’s themes. For America is large, of course. It contains multitudes.
I was recently interviewed by the National Monument on the importance of a Scottish literature by Scottish PEN as part of a fundraiser to celebrate its 90th anniversary and the part the organisation plays in the fight for freedom of expression.
I found myself relating that, despite living the US for around fifteen years, I hadn’t seen it so clearly as when I returned to Edinburgh, and my Creative Writing masters course was led by the author of the novel Under the Heartless Blue. It tells the story of a 23 year old widow who rolls up in 1884 Arizona to take up a prospecting claim, a story of women in the founding of the West.
Together with French and Scottish and Irish and English and Japanese stories, and stories of Africa, we read novels that I characterize as telling the creation myth of the United States. That idea has become something of an obsession of mine. Right now, after the enthusiastic recommendations of our old pal Andy in Brooklyn and my endless wheedling, Mrs Stroke Bloke and I are working through the HBO series Deadwood.
Back on the course, we read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, set in a harsh rural working-class New England around the turn of the century. We read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, the story of the daughter of a Swedish immigrant in the late 19th century who makes something of life in Nebraska. We read Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, and its loss of a North Dakota reservation to the federal government in the early 20th century. We read Jazz, the second part of Toni Morrison’s trilogy on African American history. And we read Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, the tale of two young boys becoming cowboys in Texas and Mexico after the Second World War.
We didn’t read the second and third parts of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, although I read that somehow – they become increasingly bleak. In the last, Cities of the Plain, <spoiler alert> the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses dies, and the protagonist of The Crossing eventually drifting across the Southwest for many years, working ranches and living in hotels, before becoming homeless, and taking shelter beneath a highway underpass. Ranching is a dying industry, and the cattle ranches around El Paso are devastated by drought and may be claimed by the Department of Defense to become military areas.
The title Cities of the Plain is a reference to a group of five cities including Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis. It’s also the title of this nineteenth century painting of the same subject by the English Victorian-era painter, Edward Armitage held at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.