Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Quotation: Narrating America–University Libraries Amidst Cornfields

From the point of view of Tony Judt, a Briton:

America was thus intensely familiar–and completely unknown. Before coming here, I had read Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and some of the extraordinary short-story writers of the South. Between this and a diet of 1940s-era film noir, I certainly had visual images of the United States. But nothing cohered. Moreover, born like most Europeans in a country I could cross on foot in a matter of days, I had absolutely no grasp of the sheer scale and variety of the place.


Since that first transcontinental drive I have crossed the cuntry seven times. Old established settlements–Cheyenne, Knoxville, Savannah–have continuity on their side. But who could love present-day Houston, Phoenix, or Charlotte? Desolate heaps of office buildings and intersections, they bustle misleadingly from nine to five before dying at dusk. Ozymandias-like, such exurbations will sink back into the marshland or desert whence they arose once the water runs out and gasoline prices them out of existence.


By far the best thing about America is its Universities. Not Harvard, Yale, e tutti quanti: though marvelous, they are not distinctively American–their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities. You drive for miles across a godforsaken midwestern scrubscape, pock-marked by billboards, Motel 6s, and a military parade of food chains, when–like some pedagogical mirage dreamed up by nineteenth-century English genleman–there appears…a library! And not just any library: at Bloomington, the University of Indiana boasts a 7.8-million-volume collection in more than nine hundred languages housed in a magnificent double-towred mausuleum of Indiana limestone.

A little over a hundred miles northwest across another empty cornscape there hoves into view the oasis of Champaigne-Urbana: an unprepossessing College town housing a library of over ten million volumes. Even the smallest of these land grant universities–the University of Vermont at Burlington, or Wyoming’s isolated campus at Laramie–can boast collections, resources, facilties, and ambitions that most ancient European establishments can only envy.

The contrast between the university libraries of Indiana or Illinois and the undulating fields almost visible from their windows illustrates the astonishing scale and variety of the American inland empire: something you cannot hope to grasp from afar. A few miles south of Bloomington’s cosmopolitan academic community lies the heartland of the old Ku Klux Klan, much as the peerless literary holdings of the University of Texas sit implausibly amidst the insularity and prejudice of the hill country that surrounds them. To the outsider, these are unsettling juxtapositions.

Americans take such paradoxes in their stride. It is hard to imagine a European university recruiting a professor–as I was once encouraged to consider a university near Atlanta–on the grounds that the nearby international airport would allow you to ‘escape’ with ease. A displaced European academic, beached in Aberystwyth, would avoid drawing attention to the fact. Thus, whereas Americans are shamellessly confessional–‘How on earth did I end up in Cheyenne State U.?’–a comparably isolated Brit would bleat mournfully of the sabbatical he spent at Oxford

Tony Judt, 2010. Voyage Home, The New York Review of Books Vol. LVII, No. 9:29–30.

1 comment:

  1. What I find fascinating is that the East Coast academies abandoned many of the area studies that the Cold War had artificially kept alive. The brain power moved to the Midwest. I think this is definitely the case for Slavic Studies, Modern Greek Studies and, to a certain extent, archaeology. The history of archaeology from the perspective of Ohio State, U Michigan, U of Minnesota is entirely different from the Ivies. Now that I don't teach for a land-grand school (Clemson), I have occasional pangs of guilt. My contract is not with a state (and ultimately its economic welfare) but with a private college full of upper-middle-class suburban kids.