Tom Lappin meets Bill Bryson, the funniest travel writer ever (ofﬁcial) and hears about how the English language is increasingly Made In America. Get outta here!
very exile has a
few choice memories of their homeland that take on an idealised glow when viewed from afar. Bill Bryson. raised in Des
Moines. Iowa, but settled for twenty years or so in England. is no different, although he does have better descriptive powers than most:
‘I wanted to hear the long, low sound of a Rock Island locomotive calling across a still night and the clack of it receding into the distance. I wanted to see lightning bugs, and hear cicadas shrill, and be inescapably immersed in that hot, crazy-making August weather that makes your underwear scoot up every crack and fissure and cling to you like latex, and drives mild-mannered men to pull out hand-guns in bars and light up the night with gunﬁre. I wanted to look for Ne-Hi Pop and Burma Shave signs and go to a ball game and sit at a marble-topped soda—fountain and drive through the kind of small towns that Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney used to inhabit in the movies. I wanted to travel around. I wanted to see America. I wanted to come home.’
And that’s exactly what he did in The Lost Continent. a comic, sardonic Odyssey round Bryson’s homeland that never spared the details of over-marketed grossness or small-town
Bryson’s new book is a freewheeling social history of everyday
America, crammed with colourful diversions.
Bill Bryson has the twln assets at being able to mock and celebrate Amerlca simultaneously.
bigotry. but equally wasn‘t afraid to get a tad elegiac when the mood called. It was what publishers called a ‘sleeper’. rumbling around bookshops for four years or so in various formats until word-of-mouth and a few Radio 4 readings shot it to the top of the bestseller charts.
His new book, Made In America serves as a kind of painstakingly elaborate glossary to The Lost Continent. It’s a detailed. occasionally erudite, but relentlessly anecdotal account of the growth and spread of American English from the Pilgrim Fathers to Linda Ronstadt. As the passage above indicates, Bryson has a fascination with the arcane beauty of commercial Americanese, and Made In America delights in tracing the origins of trademarks. nicknames, jargon
/ «1/3 91/ .
attractive cul-de-sac off the main highway of his narrative. This tendency was a huge ingredient in the success of The Lost Continent. and although he’s more disciplined with the new book. Made In America is still crammed with colourful diversions. Bryson‘s research may be impeccably thorough but when he comes to getting it down on paper he can‘t resist the populist touch.
‘Emotionally it was a social and cultural history.’ he admits. ‘but strictly. according to the American publisher‘s contract, it had to be a history of the growth and development of the English language in the USA. I had to
constantly bear that in mind, but because it’s such a broad thing and language comes into nearly everything else it was quite easy to stray. l
1 thought. to hell with it, I’ll
just do anything about LOS‘CO““”°“‘ American linguistic history that strikes me as
interesting.‘ The stuff that strikes him as interesting is invariably of
and street-slang. What begins THERE an offbeat nature. Inspired by as a straightforward if A .. , , his distance from Iowa, substantial lexicological “m, MM, WES Bryson has rediscovered a account ends up as a fascination of everyday freewheeling social history of Americana. ‘Oneofthe great everyday America. That’s things about living abroad or Bryson’s gift as a writer. The going abroad is that man never can resist an " ' ‘m mundane items that you
8 The List 144 July 1994