The Shock of America

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Readers of this July’s issue of Vanity Fair will be very familiar with the subject of this book by David Ellwood. The magazine contained an article by A. A. Gill based on his new book To America with Love, which was published in America in August 2013 (Simon & Schuster).

In the article, Gill says that “The threads of the Old World are woven into the New. America is Europe’s greatest invention.”

The folksy and first-person style of Gill’s superficial book makes it more readable than the book by Ellwood, but if you want to learn the real details of how Europe has reacted to the challenge of America in the past century, Ellwood has produced a masterwork. His credentials appropriately enough straddle both the Old and New Worlds. He is associate professor at the Univ. of Bologna in Italy, and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins Univ. in the US.

“The United States has no friend in Europe.” While that statement could have been written in 2013 in the midst of the Syria crisis, it was actually written by the British economist Sydney Brooks in 1901. It just goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Ellwood looks at the writings of Brooks and literally hundreds of other people, both European and American, who have contributed to the debate about what America means to the Old World. He marshals this vast literature with great scholarship, each quote being afforded a thorough reference in meticulous footnotes on every page.

Of course no such work can be 100% comprehensive, but I noticed one very curious omission. There is no mention of the British invasion - through the medium of music - in the 1960s. How can you mention Bridget Bardot as a European export to the US (which he does on pg. 429) without mentioning The Beatles in the same context?

The book looks closely at the period around World War I, when Americans made their first big impact on Europe; World War II and the Cold War that followed; and the recent period characterized by the 9/11 attacks on America and the economic meltdown in 2008/2009. But he also casts a cold eye on what was happening during the inter-war years of the 1930s.

It was here that he identifies the beginning of “the outlook known as anti-Americanism.” It was fostered largely by German and French intellectuals who “dedicated themselves to building an imposing litany of complaints about the alleged American contribution to the degraded state of contemporary existence.”   Accusations of “moral hypocrisy” on issues such as slavery were “updated and intensified, becoming ideologically charged.”

In England, the influential writer J. B. Priestly (writing in 1934) described the influence of America on English society as a cheap kind of reality. It was, he said, monotonous, artificial, and deliberately fabricated by profit-driven purveyors of dreams and symbols. We live with the effects of those attitudes in 2013, and many still subscribe wholeheartedly to this dark side of America’s Influence which dissolved “the old distinctions which to cultivated minds separated quality from quantity.”

As an insightful look into the clash between Old World and New, Ellwood’s book is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the world we live in now.

I noticed at least five typos: pg. 50: “of of” should be of; pg 150: “on long journey” should be “on a long journey”; pg. 196: “outwith” should be “without”; pg. 219: “as whole” should be “as a whole”; pg. 365: “Pio XII” should be “Pius XII.”

The Shock of America: Europe and the Challenge of the Century (592 pages) is $65 from Oxford University Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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