Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
Our Still British Culture
The so-called special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has played out in a variety of ways over the centuries. Surely the most good was done by the countries’ alliance during World War II, and the most damage by George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s partnership in the Iraq War. The single most eloquent example of the connection between the U.S. and the UK, however, may be a simple black-and-white photograph from nearly seventy years ago.
On Sunday, October 31, 1954, the Queen Mother—the widow of King George VI, who died in 1952, and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, who became the monarch that same year—was in New York City as part of a tour of the U.S. and Canada. That morning, she attended services at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue, which is one of the more conspicuous examples of the attempts of the Episcopal Church, the American denomination left over from the Church of England’s early and robust presence in the colonies, to emulate the grandeur and magnificence of its ecclesiastical cousin across the Atlantic.
In the photograph, the smiling, saintly Queen Mother is seen making her way down the cathedral steps while locked in arms with the refined, elegant Episcopal Bishop of New York, Horace William Baden Donegan, an Englishman born in Matlock Bath in Derbyshire who emigrated to the United States as a child, was educated here and in England, and later enjoyed a superior clerical career of which his prelature was the culmination.
Admittedly, Donegan was as left-wing as his infamous successor, Bishop Paul Moore Jr., but in 1954, the Episcopal Church had yet to enter its radical chic phase. Indeed, the happy and glorious participants in this picture—not just the Queen Mother and the bishop, but the impressive, distinguished men, adorned in robes and holding crosses and virges, behind them—look blissfully untroubled. This visual embodiment of the link between the two leading countries of the English-speaking world is striking, even slightly touching: a member of the British royal family being squired about by a countryman who had traveled across the Atlantic to ascend the heights of a denomination still in thrall to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Yes, the picture shows us a kind of before-and-after view—the Queen Mother stands for the ancient tradition of the monarchy; Bishop Donegan, his British ancestry notwithstanding, represents a young republic—but it also suggests a pleasing constancy: that the bonds between the U.S. and the UK are so strong, so secure, so long-lasting that it is altogether unremarkable that the Queen Mother would, at some point during her travels, spend a Sunday morning at St. John the Divine. Of course she would; after all, she would have known most of the hymns and would have discovered, if she hadn’t already, that Americans had repurposed “God Save the Queen” as “(America) My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
While watching the solemnities that surrounded the death of Queen Elizabeth II last September, I thought again of this picture and how much had changed, and how much hadn’t, since it was taken. Yes, there were some sourpusses and scolds, some who trotted out the usual anti-monarchy talking points, but the majority of Americans still had the decency to not speak ill of the dead and a sufficient appreciation for splendor and grace to speak very highly indeed of the royal family and its emblems. In fact, the death of the Queen renewed a kind of Anglophilia unseen in this country since the death of Princess Diana, but of an entirely different character: Diana was mourned for having been given a raw deal by the purportedly stodgy, staid monarchy, while the Queen was mourned for, among other things, embodying those very qualities of stodginess and staidness. Stodginess meaning a belief in the old verities befitting the Defender of the Faith; staidness, a commitment to the same.
Instantly, newspapers and magazines were awash with sympathetic coverage of the late Queen; TV commentators praised the sovereign’s duty, loyalty, responsibility, modesty, charm, and diplomacy. And, as the succession of processions, vigils, and services—not to mention that queue—were broadcast on television and streamed on the internet, one had the sense of tens of millions of eyeballs watching in reverence—an outpouring of mass mourning that was, finally, more consequential than that for Diana and more akin to, say, the funeral of President Kennedy.
Some of us played recordings of William Walton’s “Orb and Sceptre,” the march for orchestra first heard at the coronation of the Queen in 1953; others watched the BBC’s 1969 documentary Royal Family, in which cameras shockingly (for the time) intruded on the home life of the Queen, Prince Philip, and their four children—Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward—but which, seen from today’s perspective, shows little worth gossiping about: Prince Philip is seen grilling salmon, and Her Majesty the Queen is shown indulging her youngest son with an ice-cream treat from a market. The Queen’s final gift to us may have been to temporarily remind us when the news cycle was, in fact, a cycle: the news used to change upon the arrival of new news, and the Queen’s death was big enough new news to momentarily derail coverage of the coronavirus, January 6, and the media’s usual obsessions.
Much of the rest of the world joined in this lament, especially those countries still part of the Commonwealth, but it must be admitted that Americans had a particular genealogical interest in the goings-on; it was not unlike the concern for a distant, semi-forgotten cousin remembered again upon illness or death. Hearing the funeral marches, seeing the Queen’s coffin being lowered, we whose ancestors sloughed off the rule of King George III in the form of the American Revolution could be forgiven for slightly regretting the rupture—not the rationale, of course, for independence but the fact that it deprived us of the eventual reign of so good, so noble, so admirable a figure. “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world—but for Wales?” asked Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, but watching the events on the British Isles in the month of September, perhaps some of us would have sold our republican system not for the whole world but to be benignly overseen by Elizabeth II.
Most Americans feel this push-pull to the British throne (and British society more generally) intuitively, but few expressed it with as much intellectual heft or historical precision as Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, founder of Modern Age, critic specializing in T. S. Eliot, and author of a batch of marvelously atmospheric ghost stories, including the Scotland-set novel Old House of Fear. In 1993, Kirk published a modest volume entitled America’s British Culture, which sought to remind readers of how many American institutions and traits—from the protections of a common-law system to the derring-do of those willing to tame a rugged continent—have their antecedents across the ocean.
“So dominant has the British culture been in America, north of the Rio Grande, from the seventeenth century to the present, that if somehow the British elements could be eliminated from all the cultural patterns of the United States—why, Americans would be left with no coherent culture in public or in private life,” Kirk writes. To adopt the language of Donald Trump, if those who come to America ought to love America, those who love America love, perhaps without even realizing it, Britain, too. “The many millions of newcomers to the United States have accepted integration into the British-descended American culture with little protest, and often with great willingness,” Kirk continues.
For Kirk, the grace, practicality, and beauty of America’s British culture starts with its shared language, the subject of his first chapter. In predictably artful, readable prose, Kirk traces the development of the English language and its surprising staying power even after the arrival in 1066 of the Norman duke William the Conqueror. “Why was it that English, in the long run, triumphed over French?” Kirk asked. “Because the Norman newcomers, warlike and energetic though they were, formed but a small minority of England’s population during the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and intermarriage reduced the barriers between Norman and Saxon stocks.”
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales did not exactly hurt English’s chances for survival, either. Furthermore, English, as it evolved and, along the way, purloined parts from Greek and Latin, acquired a quality of “simplicity and directness,” Kirk says, which put it in an enviable position to cross the Atlantic and take root in America.
“Borrowing from several other languages, English near the end of the twentieth century contains some half-million words—many more than does any other tongue, modern or ancient,” he writes. “It is rich in synonyms, to the advantage of English verse.”
Kirk also catalogues the countless British works that took up residence in the former rebels’ imaginations, from the King James Version of the Bible, which seeped into legal language and moral understanding, to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Americans’ residual literary Anglophilia is proven each time a new movie based on a work by J. R. R. Tolkien or a new book written by J. K. Rowling comes out.
In the next chapter, Kirk makes quick work of the British influence on the American legal system, praising the common law for its rootedness in human experience. “The common law has developed its principles from the grounds of decisions in actual legal controversies (‘case law’), not from a sovereign’s edicts of a legislature’s enactments,” says Kirk. Again and again, he manages to make the familiar new: what we think is our own was given us by the British culture from which our country sprang. “In modern times, the fact-finding jury is peculiar to England and those countries, the United States eminent among them, that have emulated the English common-law system,” Kirk notes.
Perhaps Kirk strains when, in a chapter on the history of representative government, he emphasizes the similarities between the House of Lords and the U.S. Senate. He writes, “There being no peerage in America, the Senate necessarily was an elective, not an hereditary, body; but dignity was conferred upon the senators by there being only two from each state; by a six-year term of office; by a higher age requirement; and by powers, not possessed by the House, relative to the executive branch of the federal government”—all of which is true but little of which rings true in the age of Elizabeth Warren.
All the same, Kirk’s discussion of the colonies’ self-governance is smart and persuasive: “The colonial governments all developed representative institutions on the British model—the only model that most of the colonists knew.”
In the book’s final chapter, “Mores and Minds,” Kirk cuts to the chase. Here, he discusses not the rather academic questions of whence came our language and law and political arrangements but the stuff that provides, far more than any of that, the vigor to everyday life, such as organized religion. Noting the dominance of the Church of England–derived Episcopal Church in early America—“twenty-eight or twenty-nine” of the fifty-five 1787 Constitutional Convention delegates were Episcopalian, he writes—Kirk makes plain the Britishness of the other leading denominations of early America, from the Pilgrims to the Baptists: “All spoke and read English, all lived under English law, all abided by many old English prescriptions and usages.”
He describes, too, a certain gutsiness among the earliest British settlers in America as well as the untold millions who came later. “People who succeed in fleeing from great social disasters or grinding persecution commonly possess keen intellects—as witness the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians who have made their way to the United States, surmounting great suffering and hazard, during the 1970s and 1980s,” Kirk writes. “So, too, it was with those black slaves before 1865, who succeeded in escaping from the Southern states to Canada.” We might add modern ideas about how to celebrate Christmas, and the Salvation Army, and the Beatles as lasting things that tether Americans to the British.
So, in four short chapters, we have a sketch of why Americans watched the Queen’s funeral so attentively, and why that picture of the Queen Mother with the Episcopal Bishop of New York touches me. Americans love their British forebears because we still live with what they gave us. Kirk, whose tone sometimes verges on the Pollyannish as he recites one glorious British inheritance after another, is aware of the forces that contest America’s British culture. What he calls multiculturalism would now be described as cancel culture: the attempt to erase, or at least defame, American history—in this case, Anglo-American history. His words about the biases of the academic establishment will resonate with readers today: “Near the close of the twentieth century, the hardest haters of inherited high culture are to be found within the Academy—embittered ideologues, their character warped in the turbulent ’sixties, whose ambition it is to pull down whatever has long been regarded as true and noble.”
Yet Kirk ends on a refreshing note, one often unacknowledged by participants in the current culture war, by observing that those who seek to diminish America’s British culture may end up strengthening it. “For if a civilization never is challenged, that civilization tends to sink into apathy—and slowly to dissolution,” he writes.
In other words, pushback is possible, and pushback may lead to a renewed appreciation of America’s British culture. Kirk’s small book, long out of print but available on Kindle, will appeal only to the converted, but the Queen’s funeral illustrates the utility of a genuine mass-media event. The most cheering thing about the response to the death of the Queen is that the dissenting voices sounded so tiny. The woke among us must have felt outnumbered. Even better, perhaps some of them were taken in by the pageantry—and, more important, the solemn meaning behind all that pageantry. There is a chance, however remote, that those whose lives have become governed by woke grievances or dominated by trivialities—such as saving the planet by recycling or evading a virus by wearing a piece of cloth—felt the tug of something weighty, steadfast, and beautiful.
Why is it important that a country as abundantly large and gloriously diverse as ours—with our own centuries of tradition, still being added to—remember its roots? “The great literature of yesteryear is the communication of the dead to the living; it is the bequest of vanished generations to the generation now quick,” Kirk says, and so it is with civilizations: the one that birthed us should matter to us.
For those fleeting weeks last September, any past quibbles with the incoming King Charles III were rendered meaningless; even the impolitic personal life of Prince Andrew and rather disordered personal life of Prince Harry seemed to matter not at all. If we forgave or indulged these flawed figures as we do members of our family, perhaps it’s because, historically and culturally, they are members of that family. We needn’t bow or curtsy before the sovereign, sing “God Save the King,” or even attend an Episcopal Church in the company of a royal consort to be part of the family. As Russell Kirk knew, we simply need to be American.
Peter Tonguette’s work frequently appears in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and National Review.
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