“I have never been there, but I have read Babbitt — and the villages are all Main Streetish, aren’t they?”

Studying America in England

While going through the University of Minnesota’s online archives, I came across an article called “Studying America in England” from The Minnesota Alumni Weekly (December 12, 1931). Written by a fresh alumna named Mildred Boie (class of ’27), in it she talks of her trip to Cambridge to study English literature. Specifically, she focuses on the two countries’ differing academic cultures and how acknowledging these differences gave her a better look at the United States. She begins,

The best side-product of the education I got in England was learning to be interested in and study America. You hear some queer things about America in England – almost as queer as the things you hear about England in America.

For example,

I remember an Englishman I met shortly after my arrival there about two years ago. he was a young and patronizing Cambridge man, and after he had asked me where I “came from,” I had told him modestly, he burst out.

“The Middle West! Oh, I say, how awful! I mean, it must be a terrible hole to live in, isn’t it?”

I was slightly embarrassed. It was as bad as having some one say to you sympathetically, “Your grandfather is a funny looking old trout, isn’t he?” when you had been thinking he was rather dignified and had a kind face.

“I have never been there,” the young man went on, “but I have read Babbitt – and the villages are all terrifically poky and stupid and Main Streetish, aren’t they?”

The light broke upon me then; I saw that he had swallowed Sinclair Lewis whole, and thought that his two novels photographed the whole of the central half of America.

This sort of experience made me think out and put into words what the Middle West was and was not, and by the time I left England I had worked out quite a long encyclopedic description of Minnesota which I reeled off whenever anyone expressed uncertainty about it. “Minnesota is part of the Middle West – the real America. It has 10,000 lakes and borders on Lake Superior, which is half as long as the whole of your little country. It lies in the exact geographical center of the North American continent, midway between the Pacific. …” but you being patriotic Americans, know the rest.

[Emphases my own]

Reading this, I had to laugh. Not only does this story capture the influence of Sinclair Lewis’ characters during this time, but even 80+ years later who from Minnesota hasn’t had to do this? I can say for myself that, traveling even within my own country, while there are less comparisons to Main Street the difference is split with references to Fargo and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. (“Oh,” the inquirer asks with wide, mocking eyes, “is it true that all of the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average?”)

Honestly, I’m just glad to know that this great Midwest/Minnesotan burden transcends time and place, don’tcha knoooow? You betcha!

Another gem from Ms. Boie’s article comes from a conversation she had with an Oxford professor. Expecting to be harassed for being an American, her intuition was not proven wrong.

He spent the afternoon telling me all the “terrible” stories he could remember about America and Americans, including the tall one about the millionaire who wanted to buy the Houses of Parliament and have them moved piece-meal to his home town.

With these two stories out of the way, Ms. Boie continues the thesis of her article — that is, the differences between the two countries. In England, for example, she says the professors are more willing to engage with students (whereas that’s less so the case in America). Also, looking at any American city one hears the “roar of ‘Do it now: time is money,” [so she] …  appreciate[ed] the deep, immovable slowness with which things are done in England.” Yet, even for these relatively minor differences (and the snootiness), she concludes:

[The English] may think that they are the most superior race on earth – we are convinced that there is no country in the world so good as the little old U. S. A. The English may consider Babbitt worse than the dust of Main Street, and we may bitterly attack their class distinctions and lack of hot water and furnaces. They may stare haughtily out of their monocles at our peculiar horn-rimmed glasses; we massacre their King’s English. But underneath all the joking and surface differences we know that our friendship is enduring. We know that we have the same heritage of ideals in government and social progress, that our standards and aims of life are more alike than those of other countries, and that upon our upholding and improving these standards depends the development of our modern civilization. To pass on this knowledge and this inspiration is surely one of the highest responsibilities of both English and American universities, and one that makes them fundamentally alike in spite of all their differences.

And it’s a friendship that’s never wavered!

What Happened Next to Ms. Boie?

One thing I enjoy about studying history and doing archival research is that, digging deeper, one can always find out what happened to the characters. It’s like the ending of the film The Sandlot, if you don’t mind the comparison. So, I looked up what happened to Ms. Mildred Louise Boie (born 1907 in Plainville, MN).

According to a short biography of her from the Smith College Archives, this little travelogue published in the alumni magazine of her alma mater was not the only one she wrote of her trip. In fact, her articles were also published in The London Morning Post and The Spectator. Following her trip, she returned to the University of Minnesota to teach classes and earn her Master’s degree in English. Over the next decade she went from teaching at Smith College to being an assistant editor of poetry at The Atlantic Monthly to, during World War II, working overseas for the Red Cross.

Feeling that she needed something more stimulating and rewarding in her life, in 1943 Louise applied for overseas work with the American Red Cross and, until 1946, was stationed at various United States Army bases in France, Italy, and Egypt, where she assisted in civilian relief. She was awarded the Bronze Star by the United States Army for her service. While overseas, Louise wrote several articles and short stories about her experiences which were published in various journals, including Ladies Home Journal, Glamour, and Radcliffe Quartery. In 1946, her book of poems, Better Than Laughter [link] was published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Now, I tried to find examples of her work from Better than Laughter, which was blurbed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Carl Van Doren (and personal friend of Lewis), but came back empty-handed. With that said, I did find a storehouse of her book reviews and verse from several journals but several seem to be under copyright protection.

Reader, meet Mildred Louise Boie; Ms. Boie, you’re not forgotten.

4 thoughts on ““I have never been there, but I have read Babbitt — and the villages are all Main Streetish, aren’t they?”

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