NWR Issue 70

Land of the Free?

Land of the Free?

American foreign policy has had such a bad press since 9/11 that it has become easy to forget, or at least to overlook, Wales's love affair with both American continents, North and South.

Ever susceptible to the power of myth, Welsh cultural historians have long peddled the tale of Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd, who, so the legend has it, first 'discovered' America in the twelfth century. When reports later reached Wales of a tribe of white blue-eyed American Indians in the Far West who spoke Welsh, it was assumed that they were the descendants of Madoc. Iolo Morganwg, that ultimate faker and maker of national lore, subsequently sent John Evans to find the Welsh Indians in a bid to recapture, in suitably Romantic spirit, something of the magic of the original tale. Evans's mission was unsuccessful.

Most of the numerous histories of Wales's relationship with America begin with this story. Few end as lyrically, or as suggestively, as Tony Conran's argument (in New Welsh Review 32) that Ed Thomas's play House of America - which for many became in the 1990s an iconic assertion of Welsh identity in the face of pan-Americanisation - can be read as Madoc's tale come full circle. 'Madoc,' he writes, 'the free man fleeing a Wales he despairs of, has become this down-at-heel family, where drugs, drink and fantasy implode into incest and madness. They discover America all right.'

When Conran's essay appeared in 1996, there were plenty of historical articles and books to be found on Wales and America, but relatively few literary critical responses. Since then, M. Wynn Thomas has published several seminal pieces of literary criticism that point up the ambivalent nature of Wales's relationship with American culture. Poet Menna Elfyn's response is typical, Thomas writes in Corresponding Cultures, in that she offers an articulate protest against the threat to the Welsh language posed by Anglo-American capitalism, while her poetic celebration of civil disobedience is itself indebted to the influence of figures such as Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King.

This ambivalence is paralleled on a psychological level, Thomas argues, by an 'equivocal response to American culture, which appears [to Welsh writers] both liberatingly permissive and dangerously anarchic'. Thomas discusses a range of writers in this context, including poets Robert Minhinnick, John Davies, Nigel Jenkins and Tony Curtis. His conclusions chime convincingly with Gwyneth Lewis's observation, in her interview with Kathryn Gray in this issue of New Welsh Review, that she found the contradiction between the 'cultural freedoms' offered by America and the status of the poet there utterly 'chilling': 'Being a poet was not thought of as an option […] in this so-called "free" society,' she says. Nevertheless, she recalls, 'by looking at the worst of American cultural excesses, in a strange way I cheered up a lot about it. I came away from America feeling tremendously positive about many of the cultural freedoms that you had there that weren't maybe visible from Britain.'

This issue of New Welsh Review does not set out to offer a sustained critical survey or synthesised overview: it simply presents an eclectic and subtly-interconnected group of articles and selected pieces of creative new work that are loosely linked to both the Americas, North and South. For if Wales's connection with the United States is a peculiarly fascinating phenomenon, the country's association with South America, particularly Patagonia, arguably runs far deeper. It can be seen as a symbiotic connection that highlights ever more sharply and fundamentally some of the tensions between the search for religious, spiritual and cultural freedom that motivated emigration from Wales and the inevitably complex and conflicted relationships with the 'other' country that have developed as a result.

I have, I admit it, always felt slightly uneasy about the contrast between Welsh protests against pan-Americanisation and the ardent note that pervades so much writing about the Welsh in Patagonia. Discussions of the fascinating figure of Eluned Morgan, for example, who was born in Vizcaya Bay on board a ship bound for Patagonia in 1870, tend to focus on her achievements as a woman who as a cultural pioneer (rather than an imperialist) overcame the limitations of her gender to take on a leading cultural and literary role in Patagonia. Unsurprisingly perhaps, such accounts highlight her natural empathy with the indigenous people of Patagonia, just as descriptions of the connections between the two countries today concentrate on the warmth, fellow-feeling and sense of cultural interchange inherent in Patagonia's relationship with Wales. There are a few sceptics out there, though, including Welsh-language critic Bobi Jones, who wrote in the magazine Barn in 1965 that 'we deceive ourselves that the emigration was worthy of note, that it has some historical value, and we inflate the whole thing to seem a significant element in our national life' (Gwladfa Patagonia: La Colonia Galesa de Patagonia, 1865-2000, R. Bryn Williams, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2000).

Sceptical or otherwise, there's no denying the constant lure of the west, and the appeal of questioning old allegiances while exploring new ones. The global political landscape has changed irrevocably since 9/11, and it is impossible for us now even to think of the United States without considering the deeply depressing events of the last few years. Nevertheless, the Americas are sure to remain a source of troubled fascination for Wales, and as long as they do, the life and culture of that very large patch of land 'over the pond' will continue to inspire and influence generation upon generation of writers from this equally vibrant yet very small one.


previous editorial: Words and Pictures
next editorial: New Pastoral


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