Stephen Fry in America: A Book Review, Part I

by Mira

Stephen Fry travels through America in a black London cab. His book about the trip consists of stories about his encounters and experiences,with a little bit of history thrown in.

I relished this book. I had seen Stephen Fry on television (if you’re in the US, you might have seen him in the film Wilde, with Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, and Vanessa Redgrave; the movie, directed by Brian Gilbert, was released in 1998, and the DVD in 2002), and when I learned that he authored a book about his travels in America, I was eager to buy the book, knowing that the man could write as well. And that he was British – and I was interested in a British perspective as well. The book I read was more than just a very interesting introduction to things American, state by state. I daresay it’s a fascinating read for pretty much anyone interested in learning about American culture and history, one state at a time; whether you’re familiar with the US or not, lived there or not, are American or not, this book will offer something or other of interest to you. Did I mention it’s funny? But then, if you know anything about Stephen Fry, you know that. You might not agree with all his comments or stances (I didn’t), but there’s a high chance you will like the book nonetheless, even as you realize that as with all travel books, or books about anything else, Stephen Fry in America is as much about Stephen Fry as it is about America.

What follows is a presentation and some comments on bits from this book, state by state, without spoiling all the surprises, of course.

Praise for the Wilde movie

From Amazon reviewers

Very, Very Wild Wilde (5 stars)

A Genius Portraying a Genius (5 stars)

FLAWLESS (5 stars)

Top Notch!! (5 stars)

A haunting tragedy, accurately retold (5 stars)

Brilliant, sympathetic portrait of Wilde (5 stars)

It's a wild Wilde life -- and a fascinating film (4 stars)

Brilliant (5 stars)

Just Who Is This Guy

A popular British actor of both comedy and drama, and a gifted writer. See him here in an Oscar Wilde biopic.
Wilde (Special Edition)

And Now Back to His American Travels

Praise for his book on Amazon

Fantastic Book (5 stars) / Highly enjoyable travel book (5 stars)

A fascinating travelogue (5 stars) / Such a wonderful pleasure (5 stars)

Funny, funny book! (5 stars) / Only in Britain! (5 stars)

Maine

Stephen Fry’s journey starts in Maine, where, predictably enough, he goes lobstering. We learn a few things about life on a lobster boat, and find that lobsters can be calmed or hypnotized before boiling – and then wonder what happens if they’re not, do a search online, and learn that they thrash about (of course). They also squeal, as air escapes from their stomach through their mouth. But I digress. I wonder how much of this we can see in the DVD, for they filmed a six-part television series which aired on BBC One starting with October 2008. (The journey itself lasted from September 2007 to May 2008.)

Stephen Fry in America: The DVD

"The most engaging travelogue of America I remember seeing" -- Steven I. Ramm, Top 500 Reviewer on Amazon
Stephen Fry in America

Stephen Fry in America: The Book

Stephen Fry in America

New Hampshire

New Hampshire invites a short discussion of presidential election primaries, a meeting with Mitt Romney, and a brief excursus on the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, which created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He also rides on the oldest mountain cog line in the world – but I’m spoiling the book.

Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, Stephen Fry visits the whaling museum. Ever wondered why whaling was such a big deal back in the day? Then there’s Plymouth, of course, with Plimoth Plantation and actors in character, and a discussion of freedom from persecution and freedom to persecute, which carries into a subchapter on Salem, witches, and Halloween. There’s also Boston and Harvard Yard, and a meeting with Professor Peter Gomes. But I’d better let you discover yourself all the topics in the book, and from now on only mention two or three of them.

Rhode Island

There’s Newport, with its mansions on Cliff Walk, and a meeting with Oatsie Charles, “a wondrous wicked twinkling grande dame of the old school.” There’s talk of people of privilege and gilded mansions, and some sailing and talk of boats.

Connecticut

Connecticut may be called The Constitution State or the Nutmeg State, but that’s not what the chapter is about.

Vermont

Vermont, predictably, is partially about maple, which “Americans like to pour all over their breakfast, on waffles and pancakes certainly, but on bacon too.” It’s also about Stephen Fry’s chance to create a flavor of ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s, an experience which, judging from the description he gives in the book, I imagine would be pretty fun to see on DVD.

New York

In New York State, Stephen Fry, wearing a dayglo orange cap, accompanies some deer hunters. This section brought to mind the amazing 1978 movie The Deer Hunter, with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep, to which Stephen Fry, too, makes a passing reference. Then there’s a social club of Italian Americans in Middle Village, which invites other movie name-drops.

The Deer Hunter (DVD)

The Deer Hunter
$12.98  $3.33

New Jersey

He doesn’t like the look of New Jersey, doesn’t like Atlantic City or the girl there who tries to teach him Blackjack, and is being quite blunt about it.

Delaware

He likes the landscape in Delaware, briefly refers to the architecture and a few history points, and promises to talk more about the state some other time.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is about the Quaker William Penn, of course, but also about Gettysburg and The Gettysburg Address. Predictable topics with some predictable comments here.

Maryland

We learn Maryland is actually “pronounced something like ‘murlan’”, and read about the “gorgeous Chesapeake Bay,” and Annapolis competing with Newport, RI, for the title of sailing capital. Another part of the trip that I feel must look much better on film than in words. There’s more.

Washington, D.C.

In DC Stephen Fry meets with Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. Why in Washington, DC? No idea. Maybe he thought he had his fair share of politics in New Hampshire.

Virginia

Virginia occasions another few bits of history, and a visit to Arlington Cemetery. There’s some talk about the use of the words “freedom” and “free” in America, and some comparisons between patriotism as experienced in the US and the UK.

West Virginia

He goes into the Kanawha Eagle Mine. This coalmine is not black – on the contrary, quite white. You’ll learn why. The passage about his descent into this mine is one of my favorites in the book.

Kentucky

Instrument: Appalachian dulcimer. But you won’t learn about that. Stephen Fry visits a bourbon distillery, and then a horse farm and horse sale. And no, the grass is not blue in Kentucky. You’ll learn why Kentucky is “The Bluegrass State” though.

Tennessee

You’ll learn Stephen Fry really likes bluegrass (so there must be another reason why he didn’t talk about that dulcimer at all in the Kentucky -- if you're interested to learn more about this musical instrument, fellow Wizzley writer Ragtimelil talks about it here).

There is also a passage here about a meeting with a professor at the University of Tennessee Department of Forensic Anthropology which, suffice it to say, is by far my least favorite in the book. Why he had to include such a section in a chapter on Tennessee is really beyond me.

North Carolina

He liked Asheville, and not only for the Biltmore Estate (which we learn is visited by nearly three thousand people a day!). In North Carolina, Stephen Fry goes up in a balloon – another thing I’d like to see in the footage.

South Carolina

There are palm trees, Virginia pines, oaks, and cypresses. We’re now in the South. The homes and stores, they too, are different. In what way and why? You’ll see in the book. The coastline has a “rapturous loveliness” about it. (Isn’t that a nice way to put it?) Another thing that makes me cry, Let me see, Let me see it in the DVD! And there’s more, about The Gullah – another one of my favorite sections in this book.

Georgia

There’s mention of a book set in Savannah, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There’s a close look at cotton growing in the fields, and a Thanksgiving Feast with guests of three generations, prepared and served by black servants with “language and loyalties [that] seem to belong to another world.” There are difficult considerations on the legacy of racism in the South.

John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (The Book)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
$16.95  $5.99

Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (The Movie)

Midnight in Garden of Good & Evil
$12.97  $5.34

Alabama

There’s talk of college football, which takes up three pages. There are also some reflections on the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Florida

You’ll learn about the kind of people dolphins are attracted to, and the types they leave alone. You’ll travel vicariously to the Everglades and other places frequented by “snowbirds.”

Louisiana

Louisiana is Mardi Gras in New Orleans (again, I’d love to see the film, with Stephen Fry getting “festooned” in the street by “necklaces of  . . .  coloured beads . . . dropped from every balcony and hurled from every parade float"), Croat oystermen, Hurricane Katrina, voodoo, the Angola prison and more.

Mississippi

This state seems to be the state of fried everything and anything, including Coca Cola. If you look up “fried Coke” online, it seems to be quite a tasty concoction, consisting of deep-fried batter (made with Coke) served with Coca Cola syrup, whipped cream, and maybe some cinnamon sugar. I read online it’s quite popular at state fairs (which state(s)? only Mississippi? Oh wait, I see on Wikipedia a link to an article about fried Coke in Texas), and yet I never heard of it.

P.S. I see on Wikipedia this dessert was introduced in 2006. It seems to have caught on really fast.

Stephen Fry in America (The DVD)

"The most engaging travelogue of America I remember seeing" -- Steven I. Ramm, Top 500 Reviewer on Amazon
Stephen Fry in America

Stephen Fry in America (The Book)

Stephen Fry in America
Updated: 10/11/2014, Mira
 
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Mira 29 days ago

I don't really remember what he highlighted in each state. All I know is that he tried to cover different things each time -- so not various aspects of the same issues -- and so he isn't doing justice to the various states. But the bits he picks to write on are very interesting and often things I didn't know about, so the book is quite a treat!

DerdriuMarriner on 11/07/2016

Mira, Very nice! You give an accurately attractive presentation of Stephen Fry's America, which certainly warrants being in private and public culture-related collections, even though I prefer Brian Unger's series on "How the States Got Their Shapes," which I've reviewed for Wizzley.
Do you have a state that you think he did the best job of covering and one that he could have done better on? Like you, I particularly liked what he covered in West Virginia even though I really was disappointed in the way that he did not give New Jersey any chance at all.

Mira on 11/17/2012

I would love to see the DVD myself, now that I've read the book. Sounds like it's quite a travelogue. It's getting very good reviews on Amazon!

katiem2 on 11/16/2012

I could use a bit of a refresher on the beautiful country we live in. The America books sound wonderful. Thanks :)K

BrendaReeves on 09/18/2012

You've tempted me to get the book now. As an American, it would be interested to see how someone from the UK perceives us.

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