Made in America

Bill Bryson

Made in America.

The subject of this month's review is another of Bill Bryson's works, subtitled "An Informal History of the English Language in the United States."  In this book, as in all his others, Bryson combines scholarly research with humorous asides and, as always, manages to educate the reader even as he amuses him or her.  Bryson is a writer of depth and breadth, endlessly fascinated with the myriad details that go into the development of the American language.  Herewith is an excerpt (you'll soon understand why I chose it) from Chapter 16, The Pursuit of Pleasure: Sport and Play:

"Miniature golf – at first known as dwarf golf – was born in 1927 when a developer named Garnet Carter built a resort hotel called Fairyland on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and added a miniature links complete with mechanical hazards.  He intended it as a diversion for children, but to his astonishment the adults soon drove the mites off.  Realizing that there must be something in this, Carter formed a company called Tom Thumb Golf and began producing factory-built courses.  In just three years, 25,000 Tom Thumb courses were erected across America."

Or this passage, taken from Chapter 18, Sex and Other Distractions:

"In 1951, the proprietor of the Hi Hat Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee, purchased a life-sized photograph of a naked young woman lying on a fluffy rug and proudly hung it behind his bar.  Even by the relatively chaste standards of the day it was not a terribly revealing picture – only her posterior was exposed to view – and probably nothing more would have come of it except that one day an electrician arrived to do some work and recognized the woman in the photograph as his wife, which surprised him because she had never mentioned that she was doing nude modeling for a local photographer.

The electrician took the Hi Hat to court, and for a short while the matter became first a local and then a national sensation.  With the eyes of America on him, Judge Andrew Doyle ruled that as art the photograph was perfectly acceptable, but that as a barroom decoration it was "unquestionably obscene."  He suggested – apparently seriously – that one of the city's art galleries might like to take it over.  In other words, if displayed in a darkened bar where it would be seen by no one but grown-up drinkers, the picture was held to be salacious and corrupting.  But if placed in a public forum where anyone of any age could view it, it could be regarded as a local treasure.  And no one anywhere appears to have thought this odd.

I bring this up here to make the point that America's attitudes toward questions of public and private morality have long been a trifle confused.  For this, as with so much else, we can thank the Puritans.  As early as 1607, puritanical had come to mean stern, rigid, narrowly moral, and the view has been steadily reinforced ever since by history texts and literary works like Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Longfellow's Courtship of Miles Standish."

Bryson is a writer of great verve and versatility, equally at home musing over the origins of words or the birth of trends in work or play.  Made in America is a fascinating look at language and culture, history and travel, commerce and national identity, all told in Bryson's quirky yet scholarly fashion.  Be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.