In the 70 weekly columns compiled in I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson makes commentary on the various pitfalls, advantages, or just plain eccentricities he observes while living in America again after 20 years in England. Bryson has an interesting position in composing his editorial, in that he was born in America and has spent a significant amount of time in both American and British culture and therefore, has the credence to make such commentary. He utilizes this powerful position in tandem with the liberty of the clown to express the, sometimes very real and insidious, problems with modern American society without warranting persecution for his opinions.
I’m not sure how effective Bryson’s social commentary is in prompting change, although it did prompt me to reflect a bit more on the big issues of immigration, health care, the national debt, etc. which I may not always keep in mind. Admittedly a bit out of touch, Bryson equates fundamental and detrimental flaws in American cultural and political infrastructure to the loss of kitschy highway attractions and motels full of character and bedbugs. I think he is very much aware of the ridiculousness of giving these various topics the same weight of gravity, and this is why I don’t view these weekly installments as merely Bryson’s jaded critique of the changing American landscape (in all senses of the term), but also as an attempt to put his own identity back together.
Bryson says in his first column ‘Coming Home’ that, “Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking from a long coma” . In the same way that Rip Van Winkle wakes up and finds himself in an America that has altered drastically because of the Revolution, so does Bryson ‘awaken’ from his extended slumber in Great Britain and returned to a changed American landscape. I saw this comment as indicative of the great discomfort that Bryson actually felt in returning to a place he mistakenly thought he knew. As he says, the label of ‘American’ was how he identified himself for two decades—but he wasn’t even sure what it had come to mean in his absence.
These columns are Bryson’s way of coming to terms with the world he now finds himself in, while also establishing (or re-establishing, to be more accurate) his own beliefs in the face of this change. In this way, he uses his humorous observations to both cope with the hardships of life, as well as question them.