Book Talk: Tristram Riley-Smith explores the American dream

Wed Mar 24, 2010 9:09am EDT
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By Paul Casciato

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - British anthropologist and civil servant Tristram Riley-Smith's posting to Washington led him to consider the forces which have shaped U.S. society and whether the struggle to define and preserve liberty has become a curse as much as a blessing for modern-day America.

In "The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty" Riley-Smith sets out to paint an even-handed portrait of the United States with the clinical scrutiny of his anthropological training, exposing its mythology and analyzing the genuine virtues upon which American society rests.


A: I was talking to an old friend of mine, the British film director Graham Baker, and he told me that I guess back in the 1970s, when he was about to go to LA for the first time, he had read a book called "The Americans" written by a Brit called Geoffrey Gorer and he recommended it to me. To my surprise I discovered that Geoffrey Gorer was also a social anthropologist and like me he had done his research among Himalayan tantric Buddhists and then like me he found himself posted to the British mission in Washington D.C. In his case, it was during World War Two and in my case during what I suppose would become the global war on terror.


A: I think I would say for the intelligent layman. It is most definitely not a book of scholarship. It is not designed for scholars. I very deliberately avoided footnotes. It is rich, packed with material and information. Stylistically the individual who influenced me was Peter Ackroyd, thinking about the books he's written whether it be "London: The Biography" or "Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination." Those are not books written for scholars, but they are books written for intelligent laymen.


A: The reality is that the questions I ask about the balance between freedom and social justice, which then inevitably bring us to questions about the individual versus the state, these are questions that to a lesser or greater degree separate Republicans and Democrats in America. Certainly they are used as bullets to fire at one another and therefore the fact that I have raised the question is likely to make my book more amenable to a Democrat readership. The American poet Cole Swensen said when she read the book: "At least 50 percent of Americans are going to enjoy this."   Continued...