The Golden Door: Letters to America by A.A. Gill (2012) 254 p.
Compared to Gill’s previous books, which have all been collections of short journalism pieces, The Golden Door is a more cohesive book which gathers a selection of his essays on America. The pieces can still be read independently, but I got the impression it was written to order, and it’s loosely connected by Gill’s exploration of his family tree and his ancestors who moved from Yorkshire to the US in the 19th century.
Gill remains a brilliant wordsmith and stylist, capable of creating perfectly vivid scenes and moments. One of my favourite moments is in the opening essay ‘Cuttings,’ as he imagines the story behind the buffalo head which hung on his family’s wall in England for so long:
I imagine him spending years on the wall in a modest but sturdy farmhouse, inglorious and oversized, a talking point, an anchor for the paper chains and mistletoe above a sideboard in a dining room, with brown furniture smelling of beeswax and ham and vinegar and folded linen, with hunting prints on each side, a bevelled mirror on a chain, the bone-handled carving set in its blue velvet-lined box, the slow tick of the grandfather clock, the sticking drawers lined with the yellowing pages of the Yorkshire Post, neat with saved candle-ends, comic bottle openers, plated silver pickle forks, a box of England’s Best matches, a stained recipe for Guards pudding, a china anchovy paste pot containing the charmed and silver three-pences for Christmas puddings. Perhaps they gave him a name, a Yankee name from a penny dreadful Wild West story: Tex, or Doc. Perhaps an Indian name: Sitting Bull or Geronimo. More likely, with ponderous Yorkshire humour, the name of someone he reminded the family of – Uncle Alfred, Witless Wilf. And back before that, when his name was of his own bellowing, I imagine him being picked out by a man from this valley in Yorkshire, their threads converging as the man stepped out on his long journey to the West. First the dogcart to the station, then the train to Liverpool or Southampton, the ship to New York – in comfort I imagine, not a stateroom, but not steerage – then a long, slow, rocking journey out west on that astonishing marathon of civil engineering and endurance, a transcontinental railway, to get off in some lone, blown and gritty rural town beneath the mountains, picked up by his cousins, who now look quite different, taller in their slope-heeled work boots, darker, rangier, broader, chest-out-confident, with broad hats and bandannas, and I expect they suggested a trip to hunt buffalo, to spend a night out on the prairie, sleep under the stars, eat pork and beans, drink whiskey, talk about home and the new life out here in the soon-to-be-state.
Gill is one of those people clearly very much in love with the idea of America, and while he’s not blind to its faults, this book is largely hagiography. (Amusingly, its American publication title is To America With Love.) Which is fine, and very entertaining, but you can see through the cracks; for all his wit and charm and thoughtfulness, Gill still labours under his own prejudices and background and immoveable convictions. He has no tolerance for the sneering European notion that America is “stupid” or “greedy,” but this means he simply flips that sneering arrogance back on Europe (and it’s always just “Europe,” with no concession to the vastly different nations and cultures therein). His piece on New York makes sweeping generalisations about New Yorkers, and implicitly reveals that the only New Yorkers Gill spends time around are the well-heeled ones at dinner parties and expensive restaurants.
But he also makes interesting points which aren’t usually made, or which I at least don’t usually hear. He examines the duality of the immigrant’s story: how viewed from America, it’s a story of hope and opportunity and new beginnings, whereas from Europe’s viewpoint, it’s a story of “farewell, failure, sadness and defeat,” spurred by catastrophes such as the potato famine or the Highland clearances, and how “mostly, the people who left were the ones who could be spared least…the young and the strong, the adventurous, the clever and the skilled.” This feeds into an argument against the disapproval of America as a greedy and consumptive nation, as Gill considers what such an “empty” land must have seemed like for immigrants fleeing famine, overcrowding and poverty; how a blessed cornucopia would have woven itself into the national character. He defends the US on its violent murder rate, pointing out that statistically, per capita, it only slides into the top ten – outpaced by places like Colombia, Paraguay and Bolivia. He notes that eight of the top ten lists are Spanish-speaking, “the language of inarticulate anger,” all are “notably religious,” and all of them are ex-colonies. The real reason, which he’s saved up for later, is that they’re all countries “with serious drug distribution networks.” This is the sort of writer Gill is (and I don’t say this as a criticism): somebody who deals not with facts or statistics, but with freewheeling speculation and imaginative rumination. A writer who looks at the big picture, and understands the value of narrative, of the stories that nations and people tell themselves.
Which means, as in some of the instances I highlighted above, he can sometimes be frustrating even when I know better than to be frustrated. While he concedes in his conclusion that there’s no longer any great difference between Europe and America, that we now all live in a post-modern global society, he also concludes that:
It was, in the ten thousands years of our civilisation, the last experiment in creating a brand-new nation. Idealist, reasonable, ordered, from scratch. And that will never happen again. There are no more empty lots in this world to grow countries in. There will never, ever, be another America.
Sigh. I know you need to come up with something snappy when wrapping up your Big Book About The Idea of America, but Gill knows full well that Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most of the nations in Latin America are younger than the US – and that’s if we’re only counting New World “empty lot” (!) nations, and I don’t see why we should, since they had just as many original inhabitants as modern nations like South Africa and Singapore, which also scratches off any defence that America was a properly “different” nation from those of Old Europe, unlike the apron-stringed children of the Commonwealth. I know they get crowded out in the noise, but all these little countries around the world have all their own stories and mythologies. The frame of the world can’t simply be reduced to America and Europe.
But then, I don’t read A.A. Gill for a balanced viewpoint. I read him because he’s caustically funny, wonderfully inventive and one of the most talented, interesting, readable journalists around. The Golden Door is not a book to read for any kind of reasonable or objective discussion about America, but it’s a cracking good book about Gill’s own impressions and experiences there.