Professor Joe Goldblatt
During a recent holiday upon a distant Scottish island I met a young leisure centre attendant. Upon hearing my distinctly American accent he asked me for the multi – thousandth time “Where are you from?” I smiled and replied, for the multi – thousandth time, “I am from Glasgow.” Whenever I utter this line with a straight face the receiver usually laughs, smiles, grimaces, or looks very flummoxed. This time was different. My adolescent male questioner immediately responded by saying “I want to go to America.” Then he left me speechless with his next question. He asked me in all sincerity and with wide eyes “Is it worth it?”
Now it was my turn to look flummoxed because I have heard many criticisms of my home country, however, I never once heard one of my Scottish countrymen ask of a nation of nearly 330 million diverse citizens living within land areas stretching from Alaska to American Samoa and from Puerto Rico to the U.S. Virgin Islands to Guam if this country was “worth it”.
He then went on to explain that it was his distant dream to explore one day the mountainous region of the United States and he wondered if the cost, time and effort was worth his investment. I suppose he was comparing this future adventure to other mountainous regions closer to home such as the soaring alps of Switzerland and Austria and the dramatic mountains of Italy and Spain.
However, his initial query about whether America was worth it, immediately made me pause and reflect upon why after nearly 70 years of being an American citizen, this country, despite all of the recent challenges with national leadership, race and police issues and the health crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic, was indeed still worth it for others to explore. My conclusion to this query is complex, however, I firmly believe that due to this tripartite framework America is still eminently reflective of the 1895 lyrics of Kathryn Lee Bates.
Bates, who as a 33 year old college professor, travelled across America by train from the east to the west and the panoramic views she had seen during her journey inspired the lyrics to one of America’s most important and popular songs. In 1910 her poetic lyrics were set to music from the hymn “O, mother dear, Jerusalem” and the final song was entitled America the Beautiful.
In the original version of the opening lyrics, Bates described my home country as “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies” and similar to the vision of Bates, I have also witnessed these spacious skies that I believe have served as the inspiration for many generations of poets, playwrights, and performers. When one visits America and stands upon the rim of the Grand Canyon or looks across the star filled sky of the Pacific Northwest, your spirit shall be almost instantly lifted to greater heights and you shall be profoundly encouraged to imagine a world of possibilities that appears to be perhaps seemingly boundless.
The next line in this song describes the agricultural roots throughout America with the strong iconic images of “For amber waves of grain”. Thanks to my wife being a native of one of America’s most well known agricultural states, I have travelled with her through hundreds of miles of corn, wheat, barley, and other crops and witnessed the sun’s embrace of these treasures from nature and also recognised the historic importance of our relationship to and our future stewardship of the earth to insure our survival.
The third line in this song – poem is one of my favourites because it perfectly encapsulates the gloaming time in the east and the west when the mountain ridges appear to glow from within as Bates describes “With purple mountain majesty.” The diversity of the topography in the American landscape causes one to suddenly stop, look up, and ultimately appreciate these cathedral spires of nature as they rise above clouds similar to the majestic cathedrals of Europe.
These three parts of the opening stanza reflect the sky, the ground, and the mountains that seamlessly connect them. Each one of these images represents to me constant aspiration, deep ambition and a continuing desire for greater achievement. From time to time, America, due to its capitalist roots has been accused of overstepping its mark upon the world by exhibiting far too much ambition and aspiration.
This may be true, however, these are also the values that has attracted millions of immigrants who possess within their souls a desire for a better life and they know that only in truly democratic societies may they find the fertile ground, the endless sky of possibilities and the mountainous connections to help them fulfil their greatest dreams.
I have occasionally met individuals such as the young man upon our distant isle who when hearing my American accent may wonder what motivated me to make Scotland my home and when I was officially asked to describe my citizenship, race or ethnicity, why I without hesitation always tick the box that confirms I am without reservation, Scottish.
Identity is a complex matter, however, I have no hesitancy in both being proud of the land of my birth and also recognising and cherishing that my chosen identity is Scottish. The complex reasoning that has led me to this conclusion is one firmly grounded in the shared values of both the unique land of my birth and the special land that eventually adopted me and my family. Therefore, I am grateful every day for being the son of a mother and father earth who many millions ago were once firmly joined and then through the wounding of climate change that subsequently resulted in the movement of tectonic plates upon spaceship earth were physically separated. In my mind, heart, and spirit, this wound and separation has actually been healing ever since due to our shared values of a deep desire for a better, heathier, and more just world for all of our citizens.
Both America and Scotland demonstrate through their citizens great generosity, imagination, invention, equality and a strong resolve for justice. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that so many of America’s philanthropic, technological, environmental, and political (75% of all US presidents have come from Scots or Ulster – Scots ancestry) achievements were those of individuals such as Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, John Muir and others of Scottish ancestry.
My young friend, when he visits the land of my birth, shall discover a place and people that are a strong mirror image of the better world many of us hope that our children and grandchildren shall inherit. This is the world that is best summarized in the hopeful ambition of the closing lines of America the Beautiful when Kathryn Lee Bates dreams that we may “Crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.” It is my ferverent wish that my new young friend will discover that not only is America worth it but he will return from my unique and beautiful homeland to the cherished land that adopted me, with even greater ambition, aspiration, and resolve to increase our combined worth in the future.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He immigrated to Scotland in 2007 and became a Scottish citizen in 2014. In 2022 he will return for two months to America and will provide his views of American and Scottish culture through his future “Letters from America” columns that shall appear in this newspaper. To explore his other views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot