Sunday, October 17, 2010

An Outsider's Perspective

I am an Anglophile, and I have often considered Stephen Fry's voice to be the quintessential British voice (a prestigious position formerly held in my mind by John Cleese). I have not yet read the Harry Potter books, but I could be persuaded to listen to them if I could somehow lay my hands on the British versions, for which Fry is the sanctioned reader. And his reading of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I have heard, is a joy to listen to.

This weekend (or, rather, just today) Abby and I watched the first three episodes of Stephen Fry in America, a documentary following Stephen Fry as he traverses all fifty of the United States. He gives his reason for doing so early in the first episode:

I was so nearly an American. It was that close. In the mid-1950s my father was offered a job at Princeton University – something to do with the emerging science of semiconductors. One of the reasons he turned it down was that he didn’t think he liked the idea of his children growing up as Americans. I was born, therefore, not in NJ but in NW3.

Not only is this documentary enjoyable because of Fry's likeability and I-could-listen-to-him-reading-the-phone-book voice, it's also great to get an outsider's perspective on the things I take for granted as an American. For example, his comments on American cheese are revealing (and unflattering: I always thought our cheese was delicious!), and he hates Miami. In my twenty-five (nigh twenty-six) years of life, I have never once encountered a person from New Hampshire, nor do I know anything of the state. Fry's travels through the state may have encouraged a future vacation destination.

It's no surprise that Fry traveled quickly (and with little comment) through Indiana and Ohio--though he did stop in Elkhart--but it was surprising that he passed quickly through Florida, without visiting where one might expect, and spent so long in Kentucky (the bluegrass music made up for this). He lingered in Detroit and especially Chicago, so it was nice to see places where I've been, but I was surprised at his reaction to the cold. I guess I'm accustomed to the Midwestern cold; it still surprises me when people don't know how to behave in it.

What I like about this documentary is that, yes, he is visiting some of the places I would expect, but he's also visiting some places that are off the beaten path, and these are the places where Fry shines. His interactions with the locals are sincere and not condescending. He seems earnest in his desire to understand America (sans Florida). This is best illustrated with his time spent at a bluegrass jam session and at a local barber shop. I also like that it's not one-sided. This isn't a tourist video, encouraging bored Brits to enjoy their holiday stateside. Nor is it a scathing critique of Americans and their ways. Instead it seems like a curious outsider's journey of discovery of America's people, places, and culture.

He has not backed away from examining religion in America, though so far he has stayed only on the fringe of American religion, having visited a practicing witch, voodoo priestess, and transcendental meditation expert. His opinions of religion are clearly unfavorable, but I'm hoping that he visits a church all the same. No picture of America is complete without considering Christianity. My guess is, since Texas is still on his to-visit list, that he will visit a megachurch there. And what form of Christianity is more American than the megachurch?

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