The voyage was uneventful. My main impressions of it were the width of the Atlantic, which I had never before crossed, the number of references made by my fellow passengers to the salutary effect of sea-air upon the human constitution, and the benevolent expression upon the face of President Harding, whose portrait presided, like a Patron Saint, over most of our activities. It is true, now that I come to look back upon it, that few, if any, Americans on the ship referred to Mr. Harding in conversation as a Saint, or seemed at all pleased to be sailing under his Patronage. But perhaps they were political opponents, and therefore biased against the good man. At any rate they were unanimous, for some reason which I could not fathom, in the opinion that no ship connected in any way with President Harding was likely to run out of oil.
And so A Visit to America begins. Macdonell had been a publishing success in the USA and well as the UK, so he arrived as a celebrity, and a celebrity not short of cash during a time when America was gripped in the middle of the Great Depression.
Macdonell travelled all across the Union taking unlikely spots such as Salt Lake City and the state of Montana. He travelled by rail and we gain amusing insights into rail travel eighty years ago. His style his whimsical and sometimes cruel. The tragedy of the great dust bowl is treated as a joke:
"If you keep close to Nature,” said Mr. Johansen, “you can’t go wrong. Not in Nebraska anyway. Of course if you like to plough up your cattle-ranges and try to grow wheat as they did in South Dakota when wheat went to $2.20 a bushel during the War, then you deserve anything you get."
I asked what they did get.
“They got blown away,” replied the farmer with a huge grin. “Yes, sir. There wasn’t grass any more to hold their thin top-soil together and it got blown away. The last that was seen of it was a great dust-cloud over Baltimore and then it went out into the Atlantic.” He laughed cheerfully at the notion, and from what I saw of the spirits of the Baltimoreans I imagine that they too must have laughed cheerfully at the flying farms of South Dakota."
As a somewhat tongue-in-cheek travelogue it is amusing, but also savage, and totally lacking in political correctness. It makes fun of Americans and Europeans alike and touches jokingly on hypocrisy everywhere. A must-read for anyone who enjoys honesty.
A. G. Macdonell, (1895-1941) was a journalist and satirical novelist. Without doubt his best-known work was England Their England, but the success of this overshadows his other books, many of which were classics in their own way.
The Autobiography of a Cad must surely rank as one of the funniest books ever written and Lords and Masters is a cutting and hard-hitting satire with frightening prescience, foreseeing the Second World War as inevitable.
His American trip in 1934 is amusingly related in A Visit to America, but his other non-fiction is also powerful and beautifully written, with his highly regarded Napoleon and his Marshals providing one of the best accounts of the Napoleonic Wars in one single volume.
Dimensions: 234 x 156 mm