Tea or Books? #4: American classics vs. British classics and Enid Blyton vs. E. Nesbit


Tea or Books logoIn this week’s episode, Rachel (Book Snob) and I get waaay out of our depth talking about American classics and British classics, then back onto more secure ground in debating Enid Blyton vs. E. Nesbit. (I stupidly forgot to close my window when recording, and that’s played merry havoc with the sound quality on my end, picking up passing cars on so forth. Sorrrry! I’ll remember for next time.)

But, we hope you enjoy it – do let us know what you think, and which you’d pick from each pair.

The books we mention are…

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Ulysses by James Joyce

Henry James

Edith Wharton

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Jane Austen

Charles Dickens

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Shirley Jackson

St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton

Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton

The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton

Famous Five series by Enid Blyton

Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

Enid Blyton: The Biography by Barbara Stoney

The Lark by E. Nesbit

Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple

24 thoughts on “Tea or Books? #4: American classics vs. British classics and Enid Blyton vs. E. Nesbit

  • July 29, 2015 at 2:20 am

    I don’t necessarily think the social and political issues brought up in some of the American classics mentioned mean that those novels are set out to define what it means to be an American. They write about the American experience for sure, but I am not sure that is any different than British authors writing about the British experience. British novelists write about the industrial revolution, urbanization, the class system, the two world wars, women’s suffrage, and any number of other political or social events or trends. Does that mean they are trying to define what it is to be British? Perhaps, but no more or less than the American classics cited.

    And this line “…make a claim on having a culture…” really?

    I had written about five more paragraphs, but in the interest of Anglo-American relations, I’ve deleted them.

    • July 29, 2015 at 10:24 am

      Thomas, I think it’s really difficult to discuss American literature as a British person because most of the literature that gets taught, publicised and circulated here tends to be the canonical stuff that ties in with major American historical events, which does skew one’s perspective somewhat. Despite having an English degree and having lived in the US, I’m still hopelessly lacking in knowledge of the huge range of American literature available to me, especially pre 20th century. So it was a bit of a challenging topic for us to pick as we can only talk about it in generalities based on the limited knowledge we have. And I’m sure that means we end up sounding hopelessly clueless/offensive to those with far more knowledge than us!

      My comment about making a claim on having a culture was not meant to mean that America doesn’t have or didn’t have a rich culture already – what I mean is novelists in the 20th century seem to be – from my limited perspective – forming their own ways of expressing what it means to be an American because the USA as we know it had only been around for a short period of time. I’m not saying that America doesn’t have a rich cultural history as a continent – of course it does – but in terms of finding a way to express what it is to be a citizen of the United States, I think modern American literature – from my perspective as an outsider – had a huge role to play in that, and in formulating a modern, distinctly American, literary culture.

      Simon and I acknowledge that we’re not experts on American Iiterature, history and culture and we certainly didn’t set out to offend. All we can do is discuss our perspectives! I often find American perspectives of British culture to be very wide of the mark so it goes both ways! Please do educate us – what do you think the differences are between American and British literature? I’d love to know more about what Americans think about their literature and how they feel it defines or doesn’t define their experiences.

      • July 29, 2015 at 6:01 pm

        Thanks so much for your gracious reply, Rachel!

    • July 29, 2015 at 3:50 pm

      I totally agree, Thomas.

    • August 3, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      It is a pity you deleted those paragraphs; I would have liked to have read them.

      • August 4, 2015 at 10:26 pm

        I think it was for the best that they were deleted!

  • July 29, 2015 at 7:52 am

    Why do adults read books meant for 7 year olds?I do not understand the appeal.

    • July 29, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      Nostalgia, maybe? We don’t do it either, so hard to say! I should ask my colleague, who does…

  • July 29, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    It’s true that Americans didn’t really start writing fiction until the 18th century. Before that, they were more concerned with forming their nation. However, come on, guys! Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Washington Irving, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, and then some lesser knowns, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, Charles Brockden Brown, Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and of course (although a poor writer), James Fennimore Cooper. All before the 20th century.

    • July 29, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      This is why we need listeners, Kay! Thanks so much for your suggestions – I have read a grand total of none of these people (though have read a play version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – can’t remember who wrote it). At least we acknowledged that we were hopelessly out of our depth!

      • August 3, 2015 at 4:11 pm

        I am sure the names Hemingway, Faulkner, Alcott, London and Lewis (Sinclair) must be somewhat familiar, too.

        • August 4, 2015 at 10:27 pm

          Ha, yep! Though Hemingway, Faulkner, and Lewis are 20th-century authors, no?

          • August 5, 2015 at 8:17 am

            So sorry. I must have misunderstood the topic, since Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, and Steinbeck who were discussed in your podcast were also 20th century authors.

          • August 5, 2015 at 9:16 am

            Ah, yes, sorry – we did talk about 20th-century authors too, but I thought you were addressing the bit where we couldn’t think of many pre-20th-century American authors.

  • July 29, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    I enjoyed the podcast and thought you both were very fair and considerate when putting forth your ideas about the differences between American and British fiction. I can only say I don’t like classic American fiction in general because it is too preachy and always seems to have an agenda – beyond that it is hard for me to articulate, but I think Rachel especially pointed out some very striking differences. I was not offended at all (and I am an American).
    Sadly, I haven’t read many of the authors Kay mentions above. I find more satisfaction reading British fiction, but perhaps I just haven’t branched out enough in American literature to discover the diversity and range of voices that I’m sure would make it more rewarding for me. I would love to read more books like The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher – that is the type of American novel that appeals to me.

    • August 4, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      Anbolyn, thank you for your lovely comment! Very glad we didn’t offend you – we certainly didn’t want to offend anybody.

      I think we definitely all favour the out-of-the-way books – we’ll have to do classics vs obscure books at some point :)

  • July 30, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Hurrah to Kay for pinpointing 19th century American gems.

    Many thanks to Simon and Rachel for tackling such a fraught topic and exposing the cultural blinders worn by readers on both sides of the pond.

    I adore your podcast.

    • August 4, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks Deb, that is so lovely of you! Many thanks to Kay, yes :)

  • August 2, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Interesting and entertaining as ever, Simon! You know which side I sit on in the matter but having said that, I took Rachel’s advice and read They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell. It is such a stunning read and will stay with me forever. If I could find more American novels like that I would definitely give British and American classics equal billing.
    As for children’s literature…my parents were not readers so my formative years were spent reading Classic comics and a set of encyclopedias. Rather than the cosy world you and Rachel enjoyed through books, I was terrified a volcano would erupt on the other side of town. Nevermind there was no such thing it’s just that when you’re small, so is your world.
    Between you and your comments on kidnapping and Rachel’s comments on ‘lashings’ and ‘slabs’ I was laughing out loud on the paths with Deacon. I adore you both…and the podcast!

    • August 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      Aw, thanks for your lovely comment, Darlene! And They Came Like Swallows is wonderful, I agree – I’ve not had quite as much success with the other novels I’ve tried by him (though have enjoyed to an extent) but his letters are sublime.

      We adore you too, Darlene!

  • August 6, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    I also laughed a lot during this episode when you were talking about Enid Blyton and the repeated kidnappings and lack of parental supervision! I read some of her books as a child and I mostly remember being enthralled by their foreignness: all that talk of rucksacks, things coming out of tins, slabs of cake, rain and camping in the wilderness was so exotic to a girl living in urban Southern California. I don’t remember what books I read (maybe only one?) but I do specifically remember one where the kids found a secret hiding place behind a waterfall which I thought was heaven! I had never even seen a real waterfall (on TV, but you know, not in life).

    I think you need to have (veteran) podcaster Thomas Hogglesock on an episode. Maybe British vs American novels is too touchy a subject, but you could do a D.E. Stevenson redux with Thomas in her corner for sure!
    I can see Rachel’s point about American literature in some senses. I do think that a lot of 20th century U.S. novels are trying to define what it is/means to be American in their way, particularly books Steinbeck or Fitzgerald. But that is a definition that simply cannot be captured, the target is always moving.

    Finally, I need to know will you ever answer the question to “Tea or Books”? Or is the answer “Yes, both please”?!

  • August 7, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Enid Blyton. No question. I remember the biggest anguish was trying to choose my “favourite”, because apparently eight year olds need favorites to show everyone how serious they are.

    In the twenty-odd years since I haven’t considered rereading either of the two and really if it turns out in retrospect as a much more critical and skeptical adult, one turns out to be a better writer than the other, does it matter? It’s a different world and one for children. As a Cold which did you read that enraptured you to the world of reading in the first place? Surely it’s important to define the metrics against which the “better” is evaluated first?

    In the terms of the British vs American classics…. Meh it seems much too broad to come down one way or another. Dust bowl America has almost nothing to do with Fitzgerald and vice versa for British books.
    I’m neither British nor American but spent five years in England, another five in California and the last seven in New York (neither one not their other I like to think). I remain a foreigner to both do neither appeal on a nationalistic “gut” sense though I’m sure my own inbuilt biases have their own impacts on my choices.

    • August 7, 2015 at 8:12 am

      Oh however I forget! Thank you for even covering Blyton! It’s so much fun and so rare to hear her mentioned by us millennial age readers that again regardless of which is better, a discussion on Blyton was still a bright spot of my day!

  • August 8, 2015 at 11:20 am

    I listened, and enjoyed, but didn’t have time to comment before dashing off to stay with a daughter. I thought the discussion on American authors v British was fascinating – made me realise, one again, that my reading is almost exclusively British, and I should do something to redress this. As for Blyton v Nesbit there’s no contest in my opinion… Nesbit every time (apart from The House of Arden).

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