Stepping Westward

Collected Works: Literature

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Stepping Westward

by Malcolm Bradbury

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Benedict Arnold University is located in the town of Party, a nowhereland in America’s Midwest. It is notorious for its groanworthy advertising campaigns – ‘Take a BA at B.A.!’ – and the publicity provided by its writers-in-residence, whose unflattering accounts of the institution have gained it something of a cult status. Having exhausted all the viable talent that the United States has to offer, the university’s academic committee turns abroad for their next author, agreeing upon a promising English novelist, James Walker.

In turns licentious and repressed, Walker is a British caricature. En route to the States, he pines after the lovely Julie Snowflake, a travelling bagpiper. Hindered by self-doubt, he settles instead for the frumpy Miss Marrow, entering an adulterous relationship he never really wanted in the first place. When Walker does reach the Land of the Free, his prize purchase is a pair of polka-dot underwear. Walker doesn’t quite know what to do with America, it seems, and America sure doesn’t know what to do with him.

Labelled by critics as an Angry Young Man, Walker is neither angry nor particularly young, a discrepancy that complicates Benedict Arnold’s strained faculty politics. He becomes a pawn in the war between the institution’s two factions, respectively typified by the McCarthyism of the fifties and the liberalism of the sixties. One side assumes an Englishman will bring with him an air of dignity; the other hopes that he will practise the rebellious preaching of his writing and shake up campus convention. Both sides end up disappointed.

The novel is playful in its invention; the university is located in a fabricated state governed by contrived laws, within a satirically stylised United States. Malcolm Bradbury uses such fictional embellishments, along with a healthy dose of behavioural hyperbole, to amplify the gap between Brits and their American cousins. As a bewildered Walker soon finds out, the two may be bonded by language, but are distanced by worldview. Stepping Westward shares his bemusement, presenting a wry, witty portrayal of the transatlantic divide.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can read an excerpt of the novel here, and visit Malcolm Bradbury's official website here. The site includes a biography (here), an introductory essay to Stepping Westward by David Lodge (here), and an unpublished afterword by the author (here).

A number of articles were published by The Guardian following Bradbury's death in 2000, alongside his obituary, which is available here. These included tributes from Andrew Motion and Kazuo Ishiguro (here), David Lodge (here), and Ian McEwan (here).

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