Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eric Knight Come Home

You have not heard of Eric Knight.

I hadn’t heard of Eric Knight until I read his short story “All Yankees Are Liars.”

But you do know Eric Knight.

You know one of his characters. One of Eric Knight’s characters is embedded in American culture. And whether you like Lassie, that iconic collie dog, it doesn’t matter. Through that dog, Eric Knight will be immortal, even if no one remembers his name.

Born an Englishman, Knight’s career flourished in America. And in reading “All Yankees Are Liars,” it’s clear that Knight reveled in the differences between the two nations. In this short story, Knight easily captures the chauvinism of the Southern Californian – so loyal to his home turf he can’t deign to mention the Oakland Bridge as an example of a big American bridge when s quartet of Yorkshiremen challenge him to describe everything big in America.

Knight’s character goes on to tell the tale of irrigated land, corn fourteen feet tall and other mundanities until it’s clear his listeners believe he’s a liar, especially when he denied being a Yankee, as Yankees are from New England, not Southern California.

“Tha shouldn’t heed t’ cowd, being a Yankee,” he said.

“Ah, but I’m not a Yankee,” Mr. Smith said.

They stared at him in disbelief.

“Yankees,” explained Mr. Smith, “come from New England.”

They looked from Mr. Smith to one another. The big man named Ian took a deep breath.

“Yankees,” he said, “come fro’ t’ United States.”

“Well, yes. New England is a part of the United States,” Mr. Smith Said. “But it’s thousands of miles away from where I live. In fact, believe it or not, I should think you’re closer to the Yankees than I am. You see, the United States is a big country. In the part where the Yankees come from, it gets very cold in the winter. Where I am – in Southern California – it never snows. Why, I’ve never known it to snow there in all my life.”

And, of course, never the twain shall meet until the hapless Mr. Smith begins to tell outrageous lies about his former career as a cowboy, that his mother is a Blackfoot Indian princess – all tales the Yorkshiremen want to hear – and all they believe to be true, even though he’s lying through his teeth to them because they disbelieved his truth.

This all goes to show, of course, that the preconceived notions we all possess about people who live in other nations are most likely a bit false, but we want to believe them anyway. In other words, we’re all liars, not just Yankees.

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