Primary Source: James Morris, As I Saw the U.S.A. (New York: Pantheon, 1956), pp. 10-17.
Background: Jan Morris is a British travel writer and trans woman who published her under birth name of James Morris until 1974. After an extended stay in the United States, Morris wrote a prize-winning series of observations about life in America, including the following excerpt about Cranbury, New Jersey.
“I lived for a time with my wife and children in … Cranbury… a small market center, where farmers do their shopping and a few commuters to the city have established their homes… The place is best on a frosty evening in winter, when… the white weatherboard houses of Main Street shin in the moonlight. On such nights the people of Cranbury often go skating on the village pond, to the accompaniment of music from loudspeakers mounted on the roof of the fire station… There are farmers in check shirts and ear muffs, moving with unexpected grace. Girls waltz pointedly in pairs, wearing blue ski trousers and white jumpers…. Small children totter in desperate instability toward the bank and boys with toboggans shoot about like rockets. Various men with a tendency toward authority stand in municipal attitudes on the perimeter…. The fire station is a center of activity in Cranbury, following an old American tradition…
It is a fairly well-heeled village and there is a good deal of comfort in those white houses. Everyone has a refrigerator, of course, and most people have television; many also possess washing machines, dishwashers, gadgets for making waste matter swill away down the sink, cookers that time themselves and ring a bell when the meat is done, radios that wake you up with a cup of coffee, electric sewing machines, white telephones, and microphones to transmit the sounds of sleepless babies. Almost every family has its car… and the slimmest daughter handles it like a lorry driver. Almost every house has its central heating and from time to time a truck arrives to pump oil through heavy pipes into the basement furnaces….
The little American … often turns to be wonderfully good material… The truth is that American children develop national characteristics disconcertingly early. This is the land of opportunism, and the children realize it soon. The boys… are greedy for… useful knowledge and will work well for fair reward. The girls seem to know that before they leave nursery that a good marriage must be their goal, and regulate their lives accordingly….
A characteristic citizen, the elderly man leaning against the wall of the fire station,… knows little of Europe and its values, but is quite willing to learn; dislikes and distrusts authority, but is ready to cooperate if nicely asked; can be a faithful bore, but tries to reach his conclusions fairly; enjoys watching the skating, but will be up early next morning; cares not two hoots for smart Princeton or dazzling New York; owns a
fine car and a sound bank balance, but still approaches life with some humility.” – James Morris, As I Saw the U.S.A
Three Pre-Zoom Discussion Questions
- How do you think Cranbury was both typical and atypical for the United States in 1956?
- What are things about Cranbury that the author leaves out that you wish they had discussed?
- How would you refashion the last paragraph if you were writing about the “characteristic citizens” of the place in which you grew up?
Five-Minute Mini-Lecture Script
I find the 1950s to be a fascinating decade. They have become largely misunderstood, in large part because they came before the 1960s which accelerated profound and dramatic changes in civil rights, women’s rights, and youth culture. For many people, the 1950s became a placid decade of gentle growth and economic advancement. Accounts such as this one of life in Cranbury, New Jersey, in the mid 1950s can easily reinforce this perception. However, historians emphasize the importance of considering the audience when the original work was published. In 1956, when the publisher released James Morris’s As I Saw the U.S.A. both in Britain and the United States, audiences must have received the calm scenes depicted in Cranbury very differently. For them, memories of a brutal world war were not too distant, less distant to them than 9/11 and the Presidency of George W. Bush are to us in 2020. Moreover, memories of the bitterly difficult days of the Great Depression were only slightly more distant. The “characteristic” elderly citizen of Cranbury with his “sound” bank balance was surely a survivor of some challenging times in his young adulthood. In short, the scene described by Morris would not have been perceived by his audience as a scene of tranquil town life only transformed over time by the introduction of new appliances. Instead, readers would have understood that the 1950s were a period of remarkable transformation, one that many of them could hardly have even imagined a quarter century earlier when men voluntarily left their homes so that their “abandoned” wives and children would be eligible for the scarce relief services that existed. There was comfort and pleasure in their reading Morris’s book. They understood that they had survived an incredibly trying period in US history and had emerged stronger and more secure than ever. What they would not have thought, which too many still think, was that the 1950s were the last years of a traditional world of happy families unstressed by changes in racial or gender norms. Those transformations were indeed coming, but they were actually slower in coming than were the changes that had been wrought between 1940 and 1950, as those who lived through the era surely knew. Indeed, Morris’s failure to mention racial or ethnic diversity in Cranbury was surely due to the fact that the town was not very diverse, something that would still be true for many New Jersey towns long after the changes of the 1960s. There are probably many reasons for the strange perceptions of the 1950s and the 1960s but one of them must be that the changes begun in the 1960s were not so widely welcomed as were the changes of the 1950s. That, however, is a story for a different time.
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