Snyder on Law, 'Not Like Home: American Visitors to Britain in the 1950s'

Author: 
Michael John Law
Reviewer: 
David J. Snyder

Michael John Law. Not Like Home: American Visitors to Britain in the 1950s. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019. 256 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-5884-7; $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-5883-0.

Reviewed by David J. Snyder (University of South Carolina) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54657

Michael John Law’s Not Like Home joins recent studies of post-WWII tourism, such as Christopher Endy’s Cold War Holidays (2004) or Dennis Merrill’s Negotiating Paradise (2009), to demonstrate the continued richness of this field of study for understanding the new era of interpersonal and cultural relations that predominated after WWII. If Law does not take his analysis as far as those two classic works, the pleasures of this small volume still reward.

Not Like Home, it must be said at the outset, does not offer a narrowly defined thesis. Instead, Law examines such topics as the demographic origins of American travelers, the tourist and accommodation industry in Britain, the rite of Atlantic passage, and personal and cultural encounters between American travelers and their British hosts. Law focuses on the 1950s as a decade of change in patterns of tourism, and he offers intriguing nuggets. Most tourists to the UK, for example, and despite prevailing British stereotypes, were not yokel provincials but came from middle-class and suburban areas, especially from coastal regions. Women were not shy about traveling unaccompanied by men. Many of the stereotypes Law presents, by American tourists of their British hosts and by British hosts of the ever-recognizable Americans, will be nothing new to seasoned readers, but they amuse nonetheless, such as Law’s entertaining discussion of American tourists’ reactions to midcentury British culinary traditions. We learn that the new Westbury Hotel in London could produce sixteen thousand ice cubes per day, a production line of singular importance to the visiting Yank. Or the Americans who complained that the British beaches were inferior to those in California and that insufficient provision of maple syrup accompanied the scanty stack of pancakes. These anecdotes prompt speculation about such cross-cultural myopias today and whether we’re becoming better travelers or whether global tourism is imposing a global homogeneity on expectations and experience.

One important concern for Law, as it was for his tourists, was the question of authenticity: was this the real Britain or not? Many Americans wanted to remain unfettered and avoided pre-arranged group tours, but this raised a vexing question of authenticity: could they ever be sure they were seeing the real thing, without the authorizing guides and tours? A kind of antitourism came into play for many: as Americans disdained the crowded tours and group travel plans, opting instead for an alleged more authentic experience, many feared that they were in fact missing out on something, betrayed by their own sophistication. Law relays one hotel clerk cleverly deploying this fear to ward off criticism of a London hotel room with no private bath. “Sir, we are not a new hotel,” the clerk quipped, activating the guest’s fear that only in the quaint dilapidated hotel, and not in the newfangled Americanized one, could a traveler find the real Britain (p. 126).

As intriguing as these snapshots are, the lack of a thesis does present analytical shortcomings. There is a rough chronological framework, as the arrival of civil aviation replaced ocean passage and then jet travel altered yet again the economic basis of transatlantic tourism. But in the main Law opts for a conceptual rather than a chronological organization. Chapter 2, for example, “Archetypes and Representations,” surveys aspects of British anti-Americanism. But though it recurs from time to time, this anti-Americanism does not constitute a theme in the book. All historians of analytical narratives face such choices, but here the cost is real. Rather than focus in a sustained and systematic way on the impressions of American tourists in the UK, and of UK hosts about their American visitors, as those perceptions changed over time, Law is forced to bring up such analysis short. Those impressions are chopped and relegated to conceptual chapters on, for example, the demographic roots of American visitors, technologies of passage, tourist accommodations, and so forth, offering perceptual snapshots rather than sustained engagement. There is little narrative in this book about how sustained American tourism over the course of the 1950s challenged, changed, or confirmed their hosts’ initial attitudes. That the Westbury appealed to “wealthy but unchic” American tourists, for example, is an intriguing judgment but not quite an analysis (p. 129). Instead, Law concludes that the steady stream of American visitors changed British tourist industrial standards and “Americanized” (a term he deploys several times unproblematically) the industry.

The lack of firm analytical framing produces lacunae. There is the problem, for example, of whom to include in the category “tourist.” Law is at pains to delineate this category. He systematically excludes, for example, those we might consider “official” tourists: Fulbright scholars, Rhodes scholars, Marshall Plan administrators, members of the diplomatic corps, even business travelers. On the other hand, there is considerable consideration of US Air Force personnel stationed in the UK, even a whole chapter on USAF families and young people who, if not permanent resident aliens, cannot quite be considered “tourists.” He presents interesting research on this constituency, but without the immediate expectation of going home in a week or two, the perceptions of USAF personnel in the UK seem a different category than the insurance salesman and his wife from Poughkeepsie.

Other concerns surface: “Americanization,” as noted, is not so much explored and analyzed but taken for granted, as simple cultural or procedural transfers from one context to another. Since Law does present a section on “How Britons Saw Americans,” it is clear that he intends to offer his tourists as lenses for cultural understanding, appropriation, and resistance, but there is no sustained theorizing to support the vignettes. Nothing here challenges or amplifies Richard Pells or any other of the classic titles in the Americanization swells of the past three decades. Broader conclusions about Anglo-American cultural relations remain scarce. The lack of theorizing leaves questionable assertions unexamined. For example, Law cites the Marshall Plan as one American “action” activating anti-Americanism in the UK (p. 16). But the Marshall Plan elsewhere prompted waves of gratitude and pro-Americanism. Did the Britons have a different experience of the Marshall Plan, coming down as they were off a relatively higher imperial plane and blanching at seeing their imperial prerogatives ceded to the Americans? Did the British Economic Cooperation Administration Country Mission perform a less satisfactory regime of propaganda compared to other ECA countries? Without knowing the answers to such questions, the attitudes of and toward tourists become something of a free-floating signifier.

Other questions linger as well. There is unfortunately almost no mention of race. Yet we know that European readers of newspapers were intensely curious about American race relations. What questions did Britons have for wandering Americans as the civil rights movement increasingly occupied their headlines? Likewise, Law does not ask how tourism compares to other forms of cultural mediation, such as film or music. More prosaically, Law only hints at a brief period of glamourous civil aviation flight. Much more work on civil aviation—that most international endeavor—in both the pre-jet and jet ages awaits the enterprising historian.

Despite these reservations, the book’s conceptual chapters offer potential models for further research. Law does help to extend this literature’s central claim, and in a very entertaining way, that the very liminality of tourists and travelers makes them fit instruments for historical research and analysis. Perhaps most importantly, if Not Like Home never directly makes the case, Law nevertheless demonstrates how the tourists, and the hotels, airlines, bus services, tour guides, restaurants, consulates, travel companies, and entertainment districts that served them, constituted a deep transnational network of personal and cultural relations. Those are institutions that will be serving historians for years to come.

 

Citation: David J. Snyder. Review of Law, Michael John, Not Like Home: American Visitors to Britain in the 1950s. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54657

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