First, the title. Perhaps I encountered Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (Heartbreak), the author of Letters from an American Farmer in school, but I have no memory of him. His book, a series of 12 letters with different styles and topics purporting to be to an English gentleman, was published in 1782. Jonathan Raban, himself an English gentleman, says though the letters seem to be factual, Mr. Heartbreak “made his America up as he went along,” but the truth he tells is a symbolic truth. So, the author’s book about of his visits to New York City, Guntersville, Alabama, Seattle, and Key West is his attempt in 1991 to discover some truth about the US.
I have read his novel, Waxwings, set in Seattle, and his 1999 book describing his solo boat trip from Seattle to Juneau (Passage to Juneau). Now with this one, I see the man is happiest when on the water. He begins this book with a description of traveling by container ship from Britain to New York. Though the going was quite rough when they brushed by a tropical storm, Raban was clearly in his element. Right at the outset he says, “When the ship at last began to move, it did so with the ponderous delicacy of an elephant sidestepping the tea things in a drawing room.”
His was in New York during the crack epidemic and he describes two worlds he observed there. He lived for a month in a room near Union Square and observed the Street People, a wide range of folks in unfortunate circumstances. For contrast, when he visited a long-time friend who lived on the 29th floor in a fortified building, he learned how the Air People lived. He said, “Paying a call on her nowadays was hardly less difficult than stopping by at Buckingham Palace to have a quiet word with the Queen.” Her life was largely spent in the quiet of a high floor; others visited her, cleaned for her, brought groceries, flowers, books, newspapers. Time on the ground was limited to white-knuckle cab rides from one fortified building to another.
I don’t know how Guntersville, Alabama fits with the other three locations (“which of these is not like the others?”), but of course he made it interesting. I want to recall what one of the older residents said about how the area changed when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Tennessee River creating lakes in the area.
Before the lake came up? Oh–that was the difference between Hell and Heaven….Gosh, people used to hate that Tennessee River. It did so much terrible destruction. In flood time, you go down by the bridge, and, oh, the things you’d see….Then there was the malaria … Hell, it was just swamps round here before the lake came up. Whole lot of people died of it every year. You had to take quinine against it … start taking the quinine around March, by June that quinine, oh, it would get to you….[the lake] brought electricity….And you could make a decent living.
What a testament.
This book solved a mystery that plagued me for years. Some recipes in my 1967 Joy of Cooking had the word “cockaigne” in the title and I could not see any connection among those recipes. I can’t remember the extent of my research on the matter, but I didn’t uncover the meaning of the word. Raban’s uses of “cockaigne” moved me to look it up and it means “an imaginary land of great luxury and ease.” It comes from a Middle French word and was first popularized in a 13th century French poem. (Thanks, Merriam-Webster.) I guess the recipes with that word in the title were ones Irma thought were especially magical.
It’s time to stop, but there’s so much more I want to remember: the story of Macy’s, Ralph Lauren, the Bess Myerson mention, the indignities of flying even before 9/11, Koreans in Seattle, his grumpiness in Florida until he gets back on a boat, tales of Key West. Perhaps I should just plan to revisit this book.
Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, first published in the US by Harper Collins, 1991, 372 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.