From Cultural Document to Lexical Niche: The Cultural Continuity of The Ugly American

Posted in 2010 Journal


Using The Ugly American as a cultural document this essay attempts to explain how and why the title of this particular novel has outlived the success of its content. Drawing upon a variety of secondary sources this essay intervenes in the conversations about America’s international reputation and why it does not seem to have changed since the novel’s publication. Ultimately, it is the purpose of this paper to show that culturally insensitive attitudes and performances of Americans living abroad were so ubiquitous that they not only became the personification an entire nationality, but also filled a gap to meet the need of everyday language.

“The Hourglass of Memory”: The Ugly American’s “ugly American”

A healthy—yet uncommon—method of confronting the self-perception of one’s physical appearance is to both denounce and accept the imperfect nature of that which is before them: and subsequently find beauty in such uniqueness. Take, for example, ABC’s Ugly Betty, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” Walt Disney’s The Ugly Dachshund, and Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer’s The Ugly American. The subtle ambiguities contained within the constructed “ugliness” of a Mexican-American girl, a swan, a Great Dane, and an engineer drive the experiences of each protagonist toward eventually overcoming previous notions of beauty while improving the interiority and comportment of secondary characters. The equivocalness of such transformative experiences is as multiple and diverse as grains of sand populating a beach or sand box. At first glance, these tiny grains of meaning work together to paint an area of colored uniformity. However, upon closer inspection, a pinch of sand is sure to reveal more than nature’s decorative impulses: differences between and symmetry within each miniscule grain. Why does “sand” more often represent a community of grains rather than reflect the details of the individual speck? Similarly, why are culturally hegemonic “Americans” so often represented as a particular—read, “normative”—class, race, sexuality, and religion? Is this mental—and perhaps pejorative—clustering as natural and pervasive to the singularity of the object in question as it is to the syntactical subject?

Guiding the arguments of this essay is an insistence by Salman Rushdie: “A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return” (1992, p. 412). A book is an individual’s opinion and therefore demands scrutiny and/or praise. This essay will briefly follow the ways in which The Ugly American became a literary success. It will focus primarily on the consequent colloquialism “ugly American” and how it has—counter-intuitively to the authors’ design—found a lexical niche and outlived the success of the novel itself, its creators, and the Cold War from whence it came. How does a piece of literature most often get remembered by its title rather than its content? In addition to confronting the ways in which this transmutation took place, this essay will briefly address the nuances of interpretive communities and their continuities.

In their 1958 novel The Ugly American, authors Lederer and Burdick highlight many social phenomena that plague the intentions and identities of American citizens living and working abroad and at home. The dictated voices of the authors’ “Factual Epilogue” state that they “have tried in fiction to describe a condition of avoidable ignorance” (1958, p. 278) thereby asserting that such a work of historical fiction was both profound and inventive. The novel, published between the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik and the Cuban Missile Crisis, follows an expansive cast of characters and their episodic involvement in the fictional country of Sarkhan—an amalgamation of more than a few Southeast Asian nations. What follows are the authors’ depictions of the ethnocentric and insensitive attitudes and actions of American ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, military personnel, and free-roaming travelers. The novel’s protagonist—the “ugly American”—is a retired engineer named Homer Atkins who is more “proud and confident of his ugly strong hands” (p. 206) than he is of his multi-million dollar net worth. His “man-powered water pump” (p. 206), brings relief to an otherwise barren Sarkhanese village and “beauty” to the ugliness of American posturing. Ironically—and the point this essay will harken back on—it is Atkins’ altruism and his refusal to improve Sarkhan’s military infrastructure that would solidify his place as The Ugly American’s most “beautiful” representative.

“A Space to be Filled”: The Necessity of Language to Fill “Lexical Gaps”

The term “ugly American,” which until the very end of this essay will be used in the ironic manner which society has used it, allows the novel’s misread citizenry to collectively share and define their observations in a succinct manner. This is not to imply that the only persons incorrectly uttering these words are those who have read the novel inaccurately—or have not even read the novel at all. However it is highly possible, as this essay will show, that the perjorative is and has been used by the most critical and analytical readers. For example, in the chapter, “What Would You Do If You Were President?” society’s version of “ugly American” is spelled out: “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive; or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance” (p. 145). If Americans had been living quietly and productively in foreign lands, would such a term be needed to describe them? Would a “beautiful American” have elicited such furor? Essentially, in this example, language is legislated through society’s negative response to a problem that was in need of a name. In a sense, such language emerges as human minds combine and agree that there is a space to be filled in verbal communication.

Steven Pinker writes about the “lexical gaps” in language that bar the speaker from fully engaging his or her thoughts insightfully. Whether participating in formal or informal conversations one must often confess that his or her language of inventory may not be as replete as previously hoped. They are faced with gaps in their vocabulary that bind them to the façade of utterance rather than clarity of linguistics. Pinker writes that “lexical suppliers” parade around the formation of jargon and clichés and hope to award themselves with the stuff of vital thought. Lederer and Burdick did more than simply write a best-selling novel. They opened the gate to the lexical garden encapsulating a problem of cultural identifications. Pinker writes that, aside from a word to describe an obtuse, obscene, and insensitive American living abroad, “there are countless other gaps” (2007, p. 304). For example,

A gender-neutral third-person pronoun to replace he or she . . . a term for one’s adult children. A collective term for one’s nieces and nephews . . . A fact that you can learn a hundred times without it sticking in memory . . . The disgusting lumps of brown snow that accumulate behind a car wheel and fall onto the garage floor . . . [and] the early morning insomnia in which your bladder is too full to allow you to fall back to sleep but you’re too tired to get up to go to the bathroom (p. 304-05).

The purpose of this essay is not an attempt to reduce The Ugly American to an acclaimed novel at a critical time in America’s story; however, as stated earlier, the popularity, notoriety, and significance of the novel as a cultural document has waned in favor of its successor—the resulting stereotypical, reductive jargon that the title has become.

In John Hellmann’s assessment of society’s reaction to the novel, he asks “What does an American look like? The provocative title summed up [the] answer: According to The Ugly American . . . [he or she is] ‘fat,’ ‘ostentatious,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘loud’” (1986, p. 3). As if anticipating the release of the novel, renowned psychologist Erich Fromm wrote that “man’s happiness today consists in ‘having fun.’ Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and ‘taking in’ commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies—all are consumed, swallowed” (1956, p. 80). The hedonistic endeavors of “having fun” are what led readers of the novel to remember the title rather than the protagonist. Following World War II the United States became consumer-oriented rather than producer-oriented. The simultaneity of modernization and industrialization led to the melding of the public and private spheres as well as the over-appreciation of buying and owning. If one is to honestly and critically evaluate society’s reaction to this novel then perhaps an appropriate question would address the irony between the title and its representation of culturally insensitive Americans—focusing on ugly personalities rather than ugly physiognomy. For example, why is the book not named for the “uglier” Americans in the story? That is, in what way does the moniker describing the humility of the book’s heroic namesake, conveniently become the epithet of a nation’s sojourners, expatriates, and those “who remain ignorant of the local culture and judge everything by American standards” (“The ugly American,” n.d.)?

In order for a word or phrase, such as the one that plagues this essay, to not only be created but withstand the test of time, an important process must take place. Pinker writes that “every one of the half a million words in the Oxford English Dictionary had to have been thought up by a person at some point in history, accepted by a community, and perpetuated down through the eons. This is a process that enmeshes the world, the mind, and societies in surprising ways” (p. 281). The question ultimately becomes how was the “ugly American” thought up, accepted, and perpetuated down from bureaucratic inner circles to coffee shop book clubs? The remainder of this essay will closely examine the consuming community of speakers and spectators and the process of perpetuation that propels a given phrase from obscure to everyday language.

“An Invisible Border”: How Words Form Communities

If one is to address Pinker’s words in an effective manner, then he or she must first look at the significant point in history from which a word or term originated. In E.H. Carr’s text, What Is History?, he writes that, “the absolute in history . . . is something still incomplete and in process of becoming—something in the future towards which we move, which begins to take shape only as we move towards it, and in the light of which, as we move forward, we gradually shape our interpretation of the past” (1961, p. 160-61,emphasis added). Carr argues that personal experience and so-called “absolutes” invade the thoughts of even the most classically trained historical mind. Progress is something that one must strive for; a movement found only in the willingness to be inundated by one’s most serene and fearful thoughts, and the absolute action which may still be undetermined. The sustainability of “the ugly American,” with all its political and societal ramifications, cannot be defined today in the same manner it was fifty years prior.

Those individuals repetitiously perpetuating the term “ugly American,” in the way Lederer and Burdick would not have their readers do, routinely shed their individualism and become part of what Benedict Anderson refers to as an “imagined community.” Anderson writes that such a community is “conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (2006, p. 6-7) that perpetuates certain beliefs and traditions for the sustainment of that group’s cohesion. Individuals using the term find themselves amidst a kinship that connects them to every other person that has ever uttered the same phrase in such a refined representation. It is important for the sustainment of the community, whether imagined or not, to have camaraderie among its participants. In such a case where a phrase is the central unifying factor it is important to realize, as Pinker has done, that “you are connected . . . to the first person . . . who decided [something] needed a name” (p. 291). The formation of identifiable and vocalized markers, much like an inside joke among friends or pet name between lovers, thereby creates an interpretive community of individuals surrounded by an invisible border of strategically placed letters, characters, and punctuation.

As attitudes and characteristics of cultures are internalized there becomes a greater need to define one’s self by that which one cannot comprehend. Since its inception in the late-1950s the term “ugly American” has never elicited as much international response as it has since the dubious election of George W. Bush in 2000 and the events of September 11, 2001, less than a year later. More specifically, an imagined community of American journalists and bloggers are concerned with how America’s image, contemporarily personified as businesspeople and college travelers, is received by the world in an age of technocentrism and terrorism. In recent articles, both Forbes and Newsweek have asked their readers, “Are You An Ugly American?” This term, in its post-9/11 reemergence, created a common enemy among the actors on the international stage whom have most critically written that “it is not the American who is ugly but America which is ugly” (Rajghatta, 2002, para. 2). Most articles today, written for a variety of Web sites and other publications, offer prescriptive advice and pronouncements for Americans traveling and working abroad. For example, the term has been used by journalists, scholars, sports analysts, food critics, tour guides, and CEO’s, just to name a few. From this list it would appear that the world has embarked on defining, clarifying, denouncing, and ridiculing the “ugly American.”

An interesting phenomenon started to happen once the war in Iraq was well under way and terrorist attacks once again influenced America’s ideological periphery. The term was no longer humiliated and degraded to the Texas-rancher-style politics, but rather, more concerned with corporate leaders and how they could improve their international image and idleness. In a 2005 interview with Keith Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action and chairman of the advertising agency DDB Worldwide, William J. Holstein of The New York Times asked a series of casual and pressing questions. In his most poignant question, Holstein asked Reinhard, “How can multinationals improve perceptions overseas” (2005, para. 5)? Reinhard responded that the United States first needs to win friends in local communities. Corporate leaders need to tune into the local culture and assess the local definition of “sustainability.” In a very real sense, Reinhard has described what The Ugly American was intended to accomplish and what Homer Atkins does with ingenuity, gravity, and a bicycle. However, concern over the image of the “ugly American” is very much present in the guise of globalization and, as Geographer David Harvey writes, “the financialization of everything” (2005, p. 33).

Hannah Clark, the author of the Forbes piece, quips that “the ‘Ugly American’ stereotype is alive and well and a major headache for executives travelling the globe to build relationships, not destroy them” (2006, para. 2). The great irony is that these executives, much like their political contemporaries of Lederer and Burdick’s era, are the ones responsible for maintaining and sustaining the stereotype they claim to combat. Reinhard appears to be far more interested in making the United States marketable than he is improving on their image of cultural, political, and military superiority. He stated that “there are obviously a lot of ways we can show disrespect and a lot of ways we can show respect” (para. 11, emphasis added). Reinhard’s over-simplified, and ultimately opaque plan to erase the “ugly American” stereotype, is detrimental to further progress. By simply acknowledging that a problem exists does not necessarily begin the process towards redemption or recovery.

More than the indifference of those like Reinhard, some do not want to do away with the stereotype. Political pundit and blogging enthusiast, Herbert I. London, offers an article in defenseof the “ugly American” stereotype. London, a staunch critic of President Obama’s diplomacy and foreign policy, writes

I prefer the Ugly American to the Apologetic American: the one wearing the horribly garish Hawaiian shirt, the one who brags about American accomplishments, the person who knows America bailed out France and isn’t afraid to say so, the one who interred political correctness and the one who refuses to apologize for American actions. Americans sacrificed blood and treasure for Europeans. That is nothing which to be ashamed (2009, para. 11).

This is not to assert that one opinion should be valued higher than another, but there is something to be said about someone who so blatantly writes that “apologies . . . [are] sickening” (London, para. 5). It is exactly that type of person which rights off “apologies” without qualification who would also embrace blanket terms as the easier, less introspective and progressive alternative.

Following 9/11 and “the mainstream media’s near complete acceptance of the premise of Washington’s ‘War on Terrorism,’” (MacArthur, 2001, para. 1) many Americans became concerned with proving their patriotism and “being supportive of President George W. Bush, that they’ve forgotten how to analyze and ask questions” (para. 8). John R. MacArthur argues that the greatest enemies to the United States are not foreign terrorists but the unpatriotic naivety of the “American body politic” and their inability to analyze and ask or answer their own questions which, essentially makes “ugly Americans.”

“Mirroring the Image”: How Words Become Goods

In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein writes that “people are brands and brands are culture” (2000, p. 61). In much the same way that Q-Tips and Kleenex have come to represent both a universal product genre and particular brand, so too has the “ugly American” been branded and distributed as more than a simple product, but also an idea, a way of life, a philosophy, and a bridge between American culture and American diplomacy. In theory, the term “ugly American” became both a product and commodity of Lederer & Burdick, Inc. In this manner, to return to Pinker’s idea, the very persons responsible for assuming membership within this community are the same ones guaranteeing its permanence within the vernacular.

Jean-Christophe Agnew points out that “consumers invariably reread, reconfigure, and recontextualize their purchases, and, in doing so, reproduce, recreate, and refashion themselves” (1993, p. 386). Agnew is arguing that the relationship one has to their belongings is particularly telling of their ideas of themselves. In this manner, the commoditization of lexical “goods” belies the metaphorical concern which Agnew would argue for. The “ugly American,” once aware of the term’s connotations, can connect an individual along a “sinuous thread” of self-replication. Agnew’s idea allows us to assess the manner and nature in which goods are bought and sold; not to mention the value in using goods to think about and critique an otherwise esoteric sect of society. By approaching language like the “commoditized goods” Agnew describes, this essay argues that in defining oneself by the ugliness they see, that they are inevitably mirroring the image they long to avoid.

A lexical niche has been filled and the gap converged. This “colonization . . . of mental space” (Klein, p. 66) – the naming of the present, but unnamed – rings of Pinker’s earlier excursus of problems without names. The advertising and marketing culture of the 1950s was precisely the canvas needed to produce a “branded” lexical entry from the title of an enamored piece of literature. Would “ugly American” have been part of the world vernacular had the novel received less acclaim? R. Gordon Kelly asserts that “cultural continuity requires not simply that a group’s beliefs be explained to the young or to novitiates, but that the validity and importance of the beliefs be successfully justified to, and internalized by, those who will eventually be responsible themselves for maintaining the belief system” (1999, p. 104). As language passes from one generation to the next it is important to remember that an ever-widening community is the very thing that perpetuates the effectiveness and utility of such communication. As much as “sand” represents the collectivity of seemingly infinite grains, Americans have been represented—at various social distances—by an indeterminate standard of labeling and stereotyping. Whereas the sand is defined by its inclusion in the whole, the “ugly American” is an individual with the unfortunate responsibility of representing an entire nation and her history. The grain of sand loseWeight Exercises its individual merit among the beach, but the “ugly American” thrives in his or her understanding of their role in shaping the image of their homeland.

In Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 film, Team America: World Police, marionettes carouse the world protecting all within in it from the “horrors of terrorism.” The film parodies the insistent nature of American politics and military to control and protect the entire world. This very idea—that the United States reserves the right to protect or attack whom it will—perpetuates the “ugly American” stereotype of ethnocentrism that is so pervasive around the globe. The movie’s theme song, “America, Fuck Yeah!” is rich with palpable examples of American notions of freedom and liberty. In the opening stanza, Parker, as a member of Team America sings,

Coming again, to save the mother fucking day yeah,
America, Fuck Yeah!
Freedom is the only way yeah,
Terrorists your game is through ‘cause now you have to answer to,
America, Fuck Yeah!
So lick my butt, and suck on my balls,
America, Fuck Yeah!
What you going to do when we come for you now,
It’s the dream that we all share; it’s the hope for tomorrow,
Fuck Yeah (Parker, 2004)!

Immediately following these opening lines the puppets transition then from persuasive campfire singing to harmonious chanting of epic (cultural colonialist) proportions. The following items, goods, ideas, and corporations are declared as being purely and wholly “American” and are then followed directly by a resounding “Fuck Yeah”: McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Rock and Roll, the Internet, slavery, porno, sushi, Christmas, immigrants, and liberty (Parker). The lyrics to this song nonetheless encapsulate the current disposition of the dangers of American exceptionalism and her need to prove victorious.

“Language is a Tool”: Confronting America’s “Ugliness”

As words and phrases become “bought” and “sold” they must, like tangible necessities or ephemeral baubles, reinvent their usefulness or risk becoming obsolete, dust-collecting antiques. Much like the innumerable nuances of jargonistic transmutation, it is important to note—returning to this essay’s earlier example—that the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tide has much to do with the continual relocation of a beach’s sand. The daily routine of lunar responses allows for grains of sand to travel from the inundated lairs of the sea to the sun-bathed valleys of the beach. There are particular “tides” that have also taken place in America’s history since the completion of The Ugly American that are invaluable to this particular discussion of society’s reaction to the novel. To list such events would too much for the scope of this essay, but the transnational implications of 9/11 created such a stir of sympathy, empathy, and support towards America and her citizens that it is worth briefly discussing. On this particularly horrifying “day the world changed” (September 11 News, n.d.), and for a brief moment—until US troops arrived in Afghanistan—Americans no longer had to defend their homeland of her injustices in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East that had taken place since the novel’s completion. American’s were allowed to be unapologetic. They were allowed a moment of stillness as millions mourned the loss of national “innocence.”

This is not to say that this is the only significant “tide” in American history; rather, this event should be a useful gauge to assess the reactions of the international community to the actions of American citizens at home and abroad. One horrific day done to Americans does not erase the years of horror done by Americans. This point is not made to incite one’s patriotism, but rather to stimulate understanding of American “ugliness” that has long persisted—and still does—to this day. If language is a tool and commodity passed down from parents to children then it is important to note that bigotry, prejudice, political loyalty, religious affiliation, level of education, and a myriad of other factors contribute heavily to the oral transmission of certain vernacular entries. Teachers influence learners in as many ways as there are grains of sand populating the world’s beaches and filling her sand boxes. Given the nature of the material presented in this essay it is no wonder that the title of the novel in question has long outlived the words buried beneath its binding. Nevertheless, it is now the responsibility of progressive and enlightened American citizens to heed these words and agree with Chidanand Rajghatta’s plea that “Ugly America needs more ugly Americans” (para. 7).

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