Coast to Coast, By Jan Morris

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The Independent Culture

For those of us who love America but are dismayed by its imperial swagger, this is the perfect book. In 1953, Jan (then James) Morris spent a year travelling from New York to Los Angeles. The result is an outstanding work by our finest travel writer, a portrait of a nation that was still "bursting with bright optimism, generous, unpretentious... basking in its universal popularity".

Morris's overture on Manhattan showcases her dazzling prose: "What a prize it would be for some looting army of barbarians, slashing their way through its silks and satins, ravishing its debutantes, gorging themselves in its superb French restaurants!" Her keen eye exults in details, which are exquisitely expressed.

A Nevada croupier's "tall thin neck" is "entwined with a mesh of sinews, like Laocoö*and the snakes".

A "bosomy film star" is seen "stepping from her Cadillac at the Kentucky Derby with a rustle of silk, a casual adjustment of furs and a wave to her entranced admirers".

She also notes the quirky differences between the US and us. This reviewer was once fined because of his ignorance that it is "generally illegal to cross the road and park your car on the other side in the direction you are travelling".

Morris's celebration ends with a glimpse of the nascent superpower: "Her new militarism makes me sad, her creeping obsession with power... her hardening inability to see the other side."