The Perils of Idealism
May 12, 2009 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Looking for novels describing idealistic/naive Americans mucking things up abroad.

Greene's Quiet American -- got it -- what else?
posted by It ain't over yet to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Daisy Miller by Henry James.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 11:47 AM on May 12, 2009

Portrait of a Lady, also by Henry James.
posted by alms at 11:48 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
posted by candyland at 11:51 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mating: A Novel and Whites by Norman Rush.

Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski.

None of these books are exclusively about 'mucking things up abroad' but they all include large and small examples of the perils of idealism.
posted by umbĂș at 11:53 AM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.
posted by Knicke at 11:54 AM on May 12, 2009

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain features plenty of naive americans and plenty of being abroad, but they aren't given much opportunity to really get after mucking things up in earnest.
posted by Acari at 11:56 AM on May 12, 2009

the sun also rises - hemmingway?
posted by mattsweaters at 12:19 PM on May 12, 2009

Sheltering Sky - Paul Bowles
posted by gordie at 12:22 PM on May 12, 2009

Nthing Daisy Miller and the rest of Henry James. Fitzgerald covers badly-behaved American in Tender Is the Night. Also E.M. Forster's The Ambassadors. Hemingway is a bit less interested in social etiquette, but most of his stories involve American dissidents drinking themselves silly in Europe. Check out "Hills Like White Elephants" and "In Another Country" (both depict overly-rational Americans who look at Europe as an escape) as well as Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. I'm not sure what you mean by "mucking" exactly, but nearly everyone is doing something that rhymes with "mucking" in Tropic of Cancer.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:23 PM on May 12, 2009

Prague by Arthur Phillips
posted by wsquared at 12:24 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by saladin at 12:30 PM on May 12, 2009


Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis

The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
posted by zoomorphic at 12:34 PM on May 12, 2009

zoomorphic, the Ambassadors was written by Henry James.

E.M. Forster has similar themes, but more with respect to British vis a vis the rest of the world (India, Italy, etc) rather than Americans vis a vis Europe.
posted by alms at 12:52 PM on May 12, 2009

The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. Contrary to popular usage, the eponymous character was physically ugly but righteous. Others in his foreign service office were ugly of spirit.
posted by workerant at 1:06 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whoops, thanks alms. Was thinking the Forster book about the tacky English family getting a baby back from Italy, which doesn't really help in this scenario.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:24 PM on May 12, 2009

Acts of Faith by Phillip Caputo
posted by marsha56 at 1:28 PM on May 12, 2009

Response by poster: Wonderful! Thank you all.
posted by It ain't over yet at 1:31 PM on May 12, 2009

No one's yet mentioned A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. It's insane. A cutesy dig at Britain's 'courtly' past which gradually morphs into an apocalyptic mass-slaughter using cutting-edge weaponry (how's that for 'mucked up'?). For serious. It's almost a Terminator prequel. Definitely worth ploughing on past the twee early chapters to get into its eerie prediction of latter-day American Imperialism with an atheistic, democratic, bloodhungry twist. Have a nice day! Mark Twain of course.
posted by Hugobaron at 1:47 PM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's a bit of a variation on the theme, but it fits the bill, and it's as acerbic and biting a portrayal of Americans abroad as any that's ever been published—Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord [1965] is an interesting and somewhat inspired novel about American missionaries bumbling through the Amazon. My sense of the book was that, though it's a very well-written novel that has almost a post-beat feel to it, it sometimes veers into caricature; it's clear that Mathiessen has no patience for the American evangelists he's writing about. Of course, I sympathize with him enough that that didn't matter much to me; and I don't really see how anyone could blame him for feeling the way he does.

It's one of the more notable books I can remember reading about the tragic and disgustingly destructive naîveté of Americans abroad.
posted by koeselitz at 1:47 PM on May 12, 2009

I have not seen the movie, so I can't speak to its quality.
posted by koeselitz at 1:49 PM on May 12, 2009

Richard Powell's Don Quixote, U.S.A. is a comedic novel about a Peace Corps worker who inadvertently becomes a revolutionary leader on a small Caribbean island.
posted by fings at 2:12 PM on May 12, 2009

Another vote for The Ugly American.
posted by aquafortis at 2:23 PM on May 12, 2009

A Flag for sunrise by Robert Stone. Warning: the heroine comes to a particulary gruesome end.
posted by canoehead at 3:27 PM on May 12, 2009

And You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers. I can't remember if they muck too much stuff up, but the main characters are blindingly idealistic and are pretty much unsuccessful in what they are attempting to do
posted by lunasol at 5:10 PM on May 12, 2009

King Ralph!
posted by jeb at 6:13 PM on May 12, 2009

this might not be very similar to the above recommendations, but if this is solely for pleasure, i recommend one big damn puzzler. it's hilarious, and different from what you might expect. happy reading!
posted by gursky at 6:25 PM on May 12, 2009

the beach.
posted by apostrophe at 7:06 PM on May 12, 2009

(oh, I guess the novel is about Brits mucking it up. they made a movie version with Americans. it would be so perfect otherwise!)
posted by apostrophe at 7:07 PM on May 12, 2009

(and if what you're really getting at here is the perils of idealism, i have to also recommend drop city by t.c. boyle. it features hippies starting a commune in alaska, and then alaska has something to say about it.)
posted by apostrophe at 8:16 PM on May 12, 2009

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton. It was her last novel and it's unfinished.
posted by katyggls at 8:59 PM on May 12, 2009

The Children by Edith Wharton.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:24 AM on May 13, 2009

Giles Forden's The Last King of Scotland. About a young Scottish doctor who gets wrapped up in Idi Amin's inner circle, but as portraits of naivite and idealism crumbling in unfamiliar circumstances go, it's excellent.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:06 AM on May 13, 2009

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