I am not American and in fact I will state that unfortunately in my 57 years on this planet I have just stepped one foot into the country when I was at the border with my Canadian uncle and aunt on vacation in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1972!
I have always had a real interest in the country, coming as I do from Britain and being brought up in the 1950′s with many American T.V. programs like “I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and reading Superman comics (as well as Batman, Spiderman and even Superdog!).
I used to listen to the late great Alistair Cooke and his weekly “Letter From America” on the radio. It painted such a good picture for me about life in his adopted country and felt really good coming from a Brit like myself who was broadcasting back to the land of his birth.
I was excited as everyone was at the election of John F. Kennedy to the Presidency in 1960 and felt that this was the first time that the election of a U.S. President had real impact on us over here in Britain. The assassination in 1963 would also hit us hard. We cried along with the whole world at the sight of Jackie Kennedy and her two small children acting so dignified at the state funeral.
I read some of the great classics of American literature as I grew up, especially (as I have written elsewhere in this blog) Harper Lee’s wonderful “To Kill A Mockingbird” which left a lasting impression. I was also very moved by John Steinbeck’s work and felt the need to tackle Norman Mailer and watch the plays of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.
I felt that I had an idea about America and Americans and having family come over from Philadelphia and San Jose, California, I actually got to meet some real ones! But what I had, as I now know, was a mental construct. It may well be similar to the mental construct that many Americans have about my country.. i.e. that we live in constant rain, that we often wear bowler hats and say things like “jolly good show” or alternatively that we are all cockneys (like the awful impression of one that Dick Van Dyke did in Disney’s “Mary Poppins”) and say things like “wotcha mate!” ).
I was delighted therefore when I came across an organisation called “Storycorps” http://storycorps.org/ This is subtitled “The conversation of a lifetime” and it is nothing more or less than that. It is an organisation where people have sought out all kinds of Americans and got their story recorded.
I have now listened to many of these talks ranging from immigrants from Mexico, to businessmen in California to old people recalling their past lives. Everything and everyone is here and more often than not I find myself in tears listening to their wonderful stories and most importantly their deep feelings for each other.
I did not really know America before but these stories tell me about the lives of real Americans… the struggles, the highs and the lows and they present us with real people telling real stories. It is a priceless resource and one that all Americans should be really proud of. I wish we had an equivalent organisation here in Britain.
Below is a link to an animated film of one of the Storycorps interviews. It is a boy with Asperger’s syndrome talking to his mother about their relationship. It is a good example of many many such interviews. If you haven’t accessed the site yet I would strongly recommend it… it is truly wonderful and there are new interviews coming out every week.