Harold Evans was an English journalist, writer and editor who loved America before he had ever seen it. He eventually became an American citizen whose journalistic and literary adventures never stopped until his death in 2020.
The America he describes in his fascinating memoir My Paper Chase perfectly describes what I felt as a young man growing up in Evans’s promised land, a country whose many beauties I took for granted 50-some years ago.
Evans was not a typical immigrant, fleeing injustice from a cold, cruel land. Though he appeared to be the very picture of the haughty, upper-class British gentleman, he was in fact a working-class lad from Manchester.
But Evans’s perspective was shaped by the privations of The Blitz. In that sense, he more accurately resembled a newcomer to these shores. He wrote about his adopted country with the eyes and the heart of an immigrant seeking solace from a cold world.
Midway through his memoir, I came across Evans’s recollection of an America he hadn’t yet seen, cast against his memories of Hitler’s onslaught. “I can never forget the America that came to the rescue,” he writes. “Franklin Roosevelt was as large in our imaginations as Winston Churchill.”
The America he envisioned following the war’s end seemed familiar to me, who, growing up in a booming America during the 1950s, knew nothing of the suffering young people of an earlier generation could never forget.
“… As a schoolboy who’d shivered in an air-raid shelter during The Blitz, when England seemed unlikely to survive, I can never forget the America that came to the rescue .… Then, when the war had been won, in the West and in the East, I’d seen this same America sustain Western civilization by acts of courage, generosity and vision. The Americans didn’t occupy the freed lands as Stalin did; they created a new liberal world order.”
“ …. In America, it seemed, it was permissible to dream. How had they survived so many crises, achieved so much abundance, fostered so many innovations, transformed so many immigrants arriving at Ellis Island with their pathetic bundles into American citizens making a mark in the world? See there in the line at Ellis Island: Albert Einstein, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire and Alexander Graham Bell. And there’s Irving Berlin, Frank Capra, Enrico Fermi and Yogi Berra …”
There may exist, he says, a more nuanced image of America in the 1950s ….
“But who with an atom of romance in his soul could not feel the pull of the mythic America? To walk into a small-town diner in a Norman Rockwell painting; to follow Raymond Chandler in a roadster up Sunset Boulevard, to steam down Huck Finn and Jim’s Mississippi, to see Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Gatsby’s Great Egg, Zane Gray’s Wild West and Damon Runyon’s Broadway.
“Yes, there was heartache in the history and in the literature, in the Okies of Steinbesck’s Grapes of Wrath, fleeing the Dust Bowl and finding not such a promised land, and most of all in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma on discrimination against black people.”
These were a handful of references that, flavored by Evans’s imagination and the remembered temperature of the times, fired my own memories of days gone by.
In so many ways, my personal image of America has been challenged as I never thought it would be. The election of Donald Trump has cast so many dark shadows across my vision of America that I’ve found it easy to forget why I’d felt so bereft. It was with sudden and unexpected relief that I recognized in Evans’s words what’s been threatened with the rise of anti-democratic, hate-based threats and actions.
In short, Harold Evans’s memories of the idea of America, its imaginative mixture of the romantic and the real, the heavenly and the horrific, was a gift. He allowed me to see my country with the eyes of an immigrant.