Understanding Europeans by Stuart Miller, John Muir Publications, 1987.
Not Like Us: How Europeans have loved, hated, and transformed American culture since World War II by Richard Pells, Basic Books, 1997.
Reviewed by Craig Storti
One of our goals here at BookMarks is to remind people of great books from the past and also to introduce those books to a new generation of the interculturally minded. In that spirit this month we review two books, one that is 34 years old and one that is 27. We realize, of course, that even intercultural books can be dated, even though they do not typically deal with topical subjects, and readers may rightly wonder if books written so long ago can be still be relevant today. You will have to answer that question for yourself, but for what it’s worth, this reader believes these two books are as insightful now as they were when I first read them all those years ago.
Let me add here at the outset that their titles notwithstanding (especially Miller’s book), the real content of each book is comparing Europeans with Americans. American readers, therefore, will come away with a deep understanding of Europeans and an even greater understanding of themselves. I don’t think there is anything I have ever said about American culture to any audience I have ever addressed (or in any book I have ever written) that I did not learn in these two books.
When I picked up Understanding Europeans and had only read the Preface, entitled “Painted in Blood,” I was transfixed, and I couldn’t help wondering if the rest of the book could possibly live up to this beginning. I need not have worried; the book is one stunning insight after another. Here are just two examples:
In America it is especially hard nowadays to have personal pride. The doors of opportunity in our country are, supposedly, open to all. Therefore, one is always inclined to question oneself and ask why one isn’t rich and famous, or richer and more famous.
[In] general, the European exists in an inner world where things won’t get better and life is not very good to begin with. Psychologically, this view shelters him from some of the shocks and disappointments of existence. Practically, such an attitude leads to the caution necessary for confronting what experience has shown to be a dangerous and intractable universe.
The Pells book contains many similar general insights, reaching many of the same conclusions as Miller, but it covers a much broader canvas; here are a few chapter headings to give you and idea: Transatlantic Misunderstandings—American Views of Europe; Transatlantic Misunderstandings—European Views of America; Mass Culture: The American Transmission; The Americanization of Europe’s Economic and Social Life. Don't be put off by some of these titles; there’s a goldmine of cultural insight in this book. Here are two examples:
Unlimited space was not just a physical attribute of the American continent, it was...a key to the American psyche…. In small countries like Britain, Switzerland, or Italy, spatial restrictions led to...a sense of limited possibilities. In America…the horizons were infinite and so too were the opportunities. There were few obstacles to economic or social ascent. In Laski’s view, “the element of spaciousness in American life” resulted in a dynamism that was the opposite of European rigidity.
Many visitors were impressed with how readily Americans moved from one place to another, how prevalent their assumption that they could improve their luck by changing their address or embarking on a new career. To Europeans who normally went to school, married, and spent their adult years living in the same house and working at the same job, all within a few miles from where they were born, America appeared to be a nation of nomads....Once past adolescence, children invariably left home, relocating in another part of the country. To stay put was a sign of failure.
To be sure you have to wade through more prose, some of which is not cross-cultural, to find the gems in Pells, but they are there. If you only had time for one of these books, then it should definitely be Miller. But if you like what you find in Miller, then you really should try Pells. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re called upon to explain Americans to Europeans or vice versa, these books will make you sound brilliant. If you already sound brilliant, then this will just be icing on the cake.
While we’re in the neighborhood (bookwise) and for those who want just one more take on American culture, I’d like to add a third book: Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped America by Carl Degler (Harper) originally from 1959. This one does not compare Americans to Europeans; it just explains Americans—with great insight.