An American in London

Andrew Kim

London Week has come to a close, but the London Centre remains one of the most visible and accessible outlets for a Lawrentian to turn his or her escapist fantasies into reality. As a closed study abroad program tailored specifically for the Lawrence curriculum, London Centre students can experience a “home away from home,” nestled in familiar social and academic experiences while able to tap into the exciting world of foreign city.

Jerald Podair, associate professor of history and the Robert S. French professor of American studies, taught two courses at the London Centre Fall Term. One of his courses dealt with the transatlantic impacts of the American Civil War, and the other with the cultural currents that passed between the United States and Great Britain in the 1960s. Both courses operated under the specific perspective of the American historian in a British setting.

At first it may seem slightly counter-intuitive that London Centre students would have traveled to London to talk about America. Podair’s aim, however, was to reflect through his course material the importance of transnational relationships in shaping the globalizing world.

“Basically, Great Britain influenced the United States; the United States influenced Great Britain; and this became a global phenomenon,” he said. Together they formed a tremendous two-pronged anvil of “political, cultural, economic, and military domination for the last two-hundred years.”

He calls London one of the world’s first “truly global cities”: many American visitors may feel the need to search for a singular sort of “British-ness” that is in many ways vanishing. It is a city with a changed face from that of fifty years ago.

“But I think what makes London exciting,” he said, “is that it is constantly becoming. It is transitioning from the quintessential British city to a city of the world; it’s ahead of its curve, and that’s what makes it unique. You find the beginnings of a world city with a world identity.”

Before his London Centre experience last year, Podair had not been abroad in about 25 years. He said, “If I was to go abroad as an American historian, probably the most fruitful and relevant place for me to go would be Great Britain. I could naturally extend my interest in the United States to Great Britain.”

He ascribes this unique kinship between the two nations to three main causes: America as a British colony, American government as a development of Britain’s liberal philosophy grounded in democratic freedoms and America as a 20th century bastion for those democratic ideals alongside Great Britain, particularly during World War II.

Podair outlined much of his thoughts and experiences concerning this transnational liaison in his “An American Historian’s London” lecture on Wednesday.

He said, “Exceptionalism is a very powerful idea in American thought, a much debated idea of American thought. It’s the idea that America is a unique nation, an exceptional nation, with a unique history and mission. This idea is bound up with the idea of American empire as well — especially in a cultural sense.”

During Podair’s own time in London, he began evaluating his own concept of American identity and of what actually constitutes American exceptionalism.

“As with some stereotypes, there are some truths to the idea that America is an individualist culture. When you go to a foreign country you will see instances where people do not necessarily try to stand out; they put the community before the individual. And you see a lot of that in London, which is one of the most congenial and collegiate places I’ve ever been.”

Podair continued, “People collide on the Tube, and the person who is collided with usually apologizes. That’s not how it is in New York. A number of incidents that would cause fistfights in New York were completely diffused in London because everyone is just so polite. And that’s sometimes hard for an American individualist to get his mind around.”

Despite the city’s flourishing newspaper culture — “more than ten daily newspapers, far beyond anything we see in the United States” — Podair recalled being initially surprised and even a bit put off at the “relative dearth of American news coverage.”

He recounts repeated instances where he confronts the possibility that American exceptionalism may not be that exceptional after all. “America may be a distinctive country, but it is not necessarily an exceptional one. The American story is not the world’s story,” he said.