Cousins, Far Removed: Terry Eagleton Takes a Snide Turn, Picks a Fight with America

Terry Eagleton. (Photo by Oliver Eagleton)
Terry Eagleton. (Photo by Oliver Eagleton)

There is a sketch in the ’90s BBC comedy series A Bit of Fry & Laurie in which Hugh Laurie—primarily familiar to us uneducated Americans as the titular character of Fox’s House, M.D.––sits at a piano. He’s decked out in a flannel shirt, jeans and a headband to rein in his mullet, evoking, principally, that unwashed-yet-beloved American, Bruce Springsteen. Mr. Laurie, a talented pianist, pounds through a progression of sentimental chords and croons: “America / America / America America America America / America-a-a / America America America America.” And then, a second verse: “The States / The States / The States / The States / The States.” After the reprise, a formally dressed Stephen Fry, oozing British pomp, walks onto the stage, shrugs to the audience, and lands a sucker punch that sends Mr. Laurie flying with a final, dissonant thump of the keys. This one-minute sketch engages in a fantasy shared by the program’s British audience—if not the entire world—who, when confronted with America’s tendency toward self-congratulation, would like to scream, “Shut up, already.”

And yet Americans have been persistent in refusing to shut up. Which is perhaps why British literary critic Terry Eagleton decided to write a book about us, titled Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America (W.W. Norton & Company, 181 pp., $24.95). “We are all princes here,” Mr. Eagleton writes, quoting Wentworth, an American character in Henry James’s 1878 novella The Europeans, and going on to comment, “The whole nation is a winner. Or at least, those who are not actually winners are en route to becoming so, as an egg is en route to becoming a chicken.”

The book’s eschewing of heavy citation and its preference for (often stale) one-liners over academese nails Mr. Eagleton down in the ranks of Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom, big-shot literary critics whose academic stars have faded, having thus deigned in their twilight years to share their infinite cranial capacities for knowledge and analysis with the undiscerning masses. While Across the Pond is not Mr. Eagleton’s first foray into the mainstream (i.e. non-academic) market, the book’s pithiness, combined with a general lack of systematic argument, clearly indicates that the author is operating in a mode altogether different from the one that brought his name to be uttered in university seminars.

Mr. Eagleton came to prominence during critical theory’s golden age on the wings of Criticism & Ideology and Marxism and Literary Criticism, both published in 1976, which elucidated literary criticism and Marxist thought’s shared history while also presenting a new model for political engagement with literature. Seven years later, he became a seminal part of Intro to Lit Theory curricula with Literary Theory: An Introduction, a rigorous and humorously readable survey stretching from the 19th-century emergence of English as an academic discipline through theory’s more recent alliances with psychoanalysis and various political ideologies. The book is still widely read, and Mr. Eagleton has since held many prestigious teaching positions, though his significance to contemporary theoretical debates has lessened. This is partly due to his resistance to the postmodern and poststructuralist theories developed by French philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—a tradition that has dominated humanities discourse in the U.S. In his commitment to an old-school ideological critique, Mr. Eagleton’s more recent work has failed to stay relevant.

The new book reads as a series of snide, often tangential and not entirely uninsightful zingers loosely organized around a number of different areas—personality, physicality, religion, psychology, politics, language—in which Mr. Eagleton sees America to be substantially different from his native Britain. Though he frequently cites Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation as direct influences, the book most readily brings to mind the American musings of a French contemporary of Mr. Eagleton’s: Jean Baudrillard’s America. (A comparison that would doubtless make Mr. Eagleton cringe, and not only because, as he writes, “The Irish are funny and friendly. The British are funny but not friendly. The Americans are friendly but not funny. The French are neither funny nor friendly.”) But where Baudrillard hit the road in an attempt to take in as much spectacle as possible—America’s greatest export, Mr. Eagleton agrees—Across the Pond relies on a strikingly unrepresentative America of the mind, one pieced together through anecdotes of lecture halls, airport bars and hotel lobbies. Reading the book, it is hard not to wonder whether Mr. Eagleton’s America is as far removed from material reality as academic Marxism is from the modern economic climate. Mr. Eagleton, theorizing about American loquacity (and likely overestimating the reader in his use of the second person), cites the following example instead of, say, a fourth-hour segment of The Today Show: “If you are trying to pick your way through the traffic on Fifth Avenue with an American graduate student at your side, he is bound to ask you what you think about hermeneutical phenomenology just as a taxi is about to toss both of you over its roof.”

Like that graduate student, living a contemplative life yet endangered by the real world, Mr. Eagleton’s highbrow musings on America are endangered by actual America; the U.S. of A. not only feels so much less monolithic than the way it is expressed in his pages, but it also doesn’t give a damn for the musings of a futzy professor. It has another fare to catch.

The book’s greatest flaw is that it does not read like the late work of someone who has spent the last four decades writing books (which it is), but rather like a hastily delivered diatribe written under contract by a standup comedian to placate his Hollywood agent. Mr. Eagleton begins Across the Pond by mounting a convincing defense of the use of stereotypes. “Sociologists are not really interested in individuals,” he writes, “any more than Stalinists are, which is one reason why conservatives tend to disapprove of them.” And he is not unsuccessful in contributing some much-needed nuance to such stereotypes: “It is not that Americans exist only on the surface, but that their surface is where their depths are supposed to be … Puritans may find spectacle and razzmatazz distasteful, but this is not because they are on the surface. It is because they are surfaces which fail to manifest any depths.” But in deploying paradox as his sole form of argument, Mr. Eagleton comes off as a jaded old chap, inflamed with passion but too tired to get around to his point, along the way taking many swipes at his old enemies (“postmodernists” especially).

Across the Pond is, of course, just one Englishman’s take on America, and as Mr. Eagleton writes, “For a certain kind of English patrician … irony is less a figure of speech than a way of life.” A textual smirk looms over the book, making room for the possibility that I, a Californian who believes punk to have been invented in Queens in 1974 and not London in 1975, could be yet another gullible Yankee, falling prey to the mischief of an Englishman inherently less “inept at satire or irony” who is performatively enacting the sort of disinterested condescension at which the British are so adept, a fact that Mr. Eagleton’s book confirms, excuses and ultimately defends. Cousins, Far Removed: Terry Eagleton Takes a Snide Turn, Picks a Fight with America