Stepping Westward is my second novel. I wrote it, mostly in the United States, at the beginning of the Sixties, when I and the world were both visibly changing. My first book, Eating People Is Wrong, had been about the Fifties: a sombre time, when there was both economic and moral austerity, even the dogs walked soberly in the streets, and there were almost no girls. I spent most of the decade as an eternal graduate student, working away in the British Museum on a thesis on the impact of this on that. It was a time when Americanization was passing through Europe like what many of the young in those days still had to take – a dose of salts. Britain was losing an Empire and gaining a washing machine, and America was where, it seemed, everything that was best came from – the best jazz, the best novels, the best ice-cream, the best cars, the best films. In fact America, the America of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, J.D. Salinger and Dave Brubeck, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Elvis and the Kelvinator, haunted the imaginations of the Fifties young. The old myth of European liberation in the New World never seemed stronger, and adventurous journeys to the new frontier were very much in order. So one day, when my thesis was finished, I put down my Leavis, put on my Levis, and sailed for the United States.
This is the mood that fills this novel, and I hope it seems like a joyous one. For through much of the later Fifties and well into the Sixties I became a regular transatlantic traveller, back and forth between Britain and the United States. In fact I became a typical example of a constant figure of the time, Midatlantic Man. If you look round in government, the media, business, and academic life, you can find them still, the men and women touched by America over the postwar years. Midatlantic Man could always be recognized, then and still. His underwear came from Marks and Spencers, but his buttondown shirts from Brooks Brothers or the Yale Coop. His accent veered, as if – just like Columbus himself – he could never tell his east from his west. He regularly thought of emigrating, joining the transatlantic Brain Drain, but one bad issue of Partisan Review and he was no longer so sure. In Britain he talked all the time of the States; in America he would become notably more British, a flagship in his Harris tweeds.
In those days sailing for America was something you still could do. The transatlantic liners still ran, those great floating Harrod's, and, cruise liners for some, they were immigrant ships for others. Little was it known up there in first class, but down at the bottom of these ships, every summer, a whole other world was hidden. Tucked four to a cabin, in windowless rooms below the waterline, probably as ballast, was an entire generation of young men and women, the Sabbatical Generation. For, every summer, people on mysterious grants – Guggenheims and Rockefellers, Fulbrights and Commonwealths – would line up on the piers on either side of the Atlantic and exchange themselves for each other. Scholars and critics, would-be novelists and biographers, scientists and sociologists, they would crowd aboard the great liners in their huddled masses. Looking back now, it seems to me that, amid the Cunard cosiness, the inlaid panelling, the white-coated and rather sinister waiters, the ceremonial breakfast kippers, much of the coming intellectual might of Britain assembled. Here were Anthony Howard and Bamber Gascoigne, Dennis Healey and Shirley Williams, bright young scholars, most from Oxford or Cambridge, in my case from somewhere more modest. They all carried mint theses, and had research projects at the other end. They all had one head, and they were taking it to America.
And America proved pretty much what was expected. After austerity Britain, it was wildly exciting. After the British class system, it was wonderfully democratic. There was everything you ever heard of: Marilyn Monroe and Dave Brubeck, Elvis and the Kelvinator, eggs any side up you wanted them, skating on the rink at the Rockefeller Center in deep midwinter, buckwheat pancakes in the Nevada desert at dawn. For once in America, we all fanned out – in rented white convertibles, if you had a Commonwealth scholarship, on Greyhound buses if you had an English-Speaking Union, like me. But by delivering a new car from coast to coast, you could see all of America. You were supposed to follow a fixed route, and complete the journey in five days. But if you drove all night without sleeping, you could also pull in the Grand Canyon, grab the Painted Desert, see bear in Yosemite and a geyser in Yellowstone, and still turn up in San Francisco on time, with dust on the clock and the car doors shaken shut. In this and other ways, I managed to see all but one of the then 48 states, meet many people, do many things, satisfy an old myth, and sustain the great American euphoria I read in this book.
It's a book of pleasurable times, but troubled times too. The Cold War was very cold, and radical, exciting America was also cautious, conservative America. The liberalism of the 30s had given way to the new realism of the superpower age. The Beats had begun, and everywhere poets in dark glasses were reading poetry to jazz in cellars; but there was also McCarthyism, caution on campus, and in state universities loyalty oaths, like the one James Walker is invited to sign in the book. I was a good liberal, of the familiar British type, but before I was allowed to teach in my cornfield university in the middle West I too had to sign a notarized document, promising not to overthrow the American government by force (and I never did). But the new conservativism was also creating its opposite: the hippie and yippie radicalism that, in the Sixties, became its adversary. Students started coming to class in beads, and refused to study subjects that didn't agree with their radical view of the world (Politically Correct has been here before; it was common in the Sixties). Again this seemed at odds with my British ideas of liberalism, and fed the themes of this book.
So Stepping Westward began, and I knew as I wrote it that I was writing in the lineage of an ancient myth. The story of stepping westward has long been part of the fiction of Europe: in Defoe and Chateaubriand, in Kafka and Sartre. America always was to some degree a fiction of Europe and Europeans. It was liberation and/or barbarism, it was Edenic innocence, and Gothic corruption, it was the future that worked and the future that didn't. The British, from Charles Dickens to Evelyn Waugh, have usually taken a downbeat view of the story, European experience looking with distrust on American innocence. It took Henry James to question the story, bringing American innocence to European experience, and challenging both. Stepping Westward can be seen as Henry James in reverse; it is British innocence that now goes toward American experience, in the age when Americans did indeed to have the future of the planet in their hands. And James Walker, an undoubtedly imperfect hero, a man who has succeeded at very little, though he has preserved a certain moral simplicity, goes into a world far more experienced – sexually, politically, historically – than his own provincial and domestic one at home.
I sent him, I see now, on a period voyage, into an America that was actually innocently experienced, looser, more relaxed and more open than the British life of his time. And in writing about him I too was on a period voyage, out of the moral mood of British fiction, looking for a freer and more open form. For this is the time when the British novel was increasingly being influenced by American fiction, and I can see in the novel the marriage of forms I was trying to make. I was also trying to build a bridge between two liberalisms: British liberalism, anxious, critical, but historically adrift, the liberalism of personal relations and moral decency, and the harder note of what Americans were then calling "the new liberalism," the spirit of a time when the leftwing certainties of the Thirties had been undermined by Stalin's postwar expansionism and the Cold War climate, were seeking a new tough-mindedness. That explains my two central conspirators and adversaries– the fat and imperfect James Walker, and his half-benevolent but deeply calculating saviour, Bernard Froelich. Walker is the plotted man, Froelich the plotter, a useful combination for fiction. Walker is a half-romantic who fails at romanticism, though he does just reach his small promise of infinity with Julie Snowflake; Froelich is the radical operator who was to develop, over time, into Howard Kirk, the more duplicitous, cunning and radical hero-villain of The History Man.
For me, the interesting task of the book was to create it from both ends – from the standpoint of the plotter and the plotted, the man who means to make a myth and the imperfect hero who finds himself functioning inside it, the figure who means to serve the necessary cause of history and the man who tries to field the moral values of doing so. By the time the novel appeared in 1965, the America it tried to capture had already begun to change deeply, and the Sixties revolution (which did not occupy the whole of the Sixties) was under way, and the counter-cultural movement that was to take the stage in 1968, driven by growing outrage about the Vietnam War, was already visible. This book is about the stage just before. By the time it appeared I was already conscious of the change, and that led me on, in due time, to The History Man, which is about the years just after 1968, as this book is about the years that are moving toward it.
Today, innocence isn't what it was, and nor is experience either. The material surprises of the United States of America are now the commonplaces of the almost united states of Europe. The Cold War has gone, or so one hopes. The great American mystery no longer seems so mysterious, and its confident and futuristic role in history has now begun to fade. It remains the world's leading power, but the future it leads us into is far more plural and chaotic, far more confused. On the other hand, many a contemporary British university today would be glad of a President Coolidge to lead it, and the Bernard Froelichs, since they took up Structuralism, Deconstruction and the Politically Correct, have been doing very well in the (academic) world. The Cunarders have disappeared, or now sail on cruises. But still, in the pluri-cultural age, the midatlantic travellers remain, buzzing from campus to campus, Pinewood to Hollywood, British newspaper to American glossy magazine. In the New World Order, stepping westward still remains one of the mysteries. And this, well, this is the almost hopeful story of one stage in it.