In Made in America, Bill Bryson de–mythologizes his native land—explaining how a dusty desert hamlet with neither woods nor holly became Hollywood, how the Wild West wasn’t won, why Americans say “lootenant” and “Toosday,” how Americans were eating junk food long before the word itself was cooked up—as well as exposing the true origins of the G–string, the original $64,000 question, and Dr. Kellogg of cornflakes fame.
Any Bill Bryson history is essentially an excuse to wander down historical byways and alleys, stopping at various points along the way to explore things in more detail. Bryson’s genius is to make this not only informative, but interesting and often quite funny. Made in America is the history of American English: how and why it diverged from British English, developed its own idioms and slang, and became the language we know today.
In a chapter on colonial America, Bryson explores the many words and place names borrowed from Native Americans, from moose to caucus to pecan. (This borrowing was not always successful — he notes that settlers in the West gave up on the Native word for a succulent cactus and fell back on the descriptive “prickly pear”.) But he also digresses to talk about the challenges the colonists faced, their rocky relations with Native Americans, the slave trade, and (for reasons which escape me but made sense at the time) various birds and animals introduced to North America by Europeans throughout the centuries, including the ubiquitous and oft-hated starling.
In discussing revolutionary America, Bryson upends a number of the myths and misapprehensions that have sprung up around the founding fathers and heroes of the Revolution as well as the events themselves. I didn’t know, for instance, that the Battle of Bunker Hill didn’t actually take place on what was then Bunker’s Hill. I did know that the Boston Massacre doesn’t deserve the name, but was surprised to discover (though I ought to have known it from my reading of Regency- and Victorian-era fiction) that many residents of England during the period also lacked representation in Parliament — and that they paid much higher taxes than those levied on the American colonists.
Later chapters deal with westward expansion; the age of invention (and patents); food and drink; travel; shopping; manners; advertising; sports and entertainment of all sorts; and more recent additions to the history and language of America, from the Wright Brothers through the Cold War. I could go on, but you get the point. The book is chock full of fascinating facts, surprising stories, and upended assumptions, all delivered with Bryson’s characteristically matter-of-fact humor.
I listened to the audiobook rather than reading it. William Roberts does an excellent job of capturing Bryson’s narrative style. I tend to prefer Bryson’s own readings (he narrates both At Home and One Summer), but within the first ten minutes I had happily accepted Roberts as a substitute. When necessary for understanding or clarity, he spells out some words, but on the whole, it’s a very straightforward narration.
If you enjoy American history and/or the history of language, Made In America is a delightful read and well worth the time I spent listening to it.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017