Last night the Martians touched down in the backyard. They were oval and bright pink, with two antlike antennae topped by eyes fringed with sea-anemone lashes. They said they’d come to study America.
“Why ask me?” I said. “America is farther south.”
“You are an observer,” they said. “Please tell us: Does America have a different ‘flavor’ from that of other countries? Is it the center of the cultural world? How does it look to outsiders?”
“America has always been different from Europe,” I said, “having begun as a utopian religious community. Some have seen it as a dream world where you can be what you choose, others as a mirage that lures, exploits and disappoints. Some see it as a land of spiritual potential, others as a place of crass and vulgar materialism. Some see it as a mecca for creative entrepreneurs, others as a corporate oligarchy where the big eat the small and inventions helpful to the world are stifled. Some see it as the home of freedom of expression, others as a land of timorous conformity and mob-opinion rule.”
“Thank you,” said the Martians, after looking up “thank you” on translate.google.com™. “How may we best discover the essence of America?”
“Through its literature, would be my choice,” I said, “but I’m biased.”
“O.K.,” said the Martians. “What should we read first? Can we have marshmallows?”
“Let’s start with two stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne,” I said. “‘The Maypole of Merry Mount,’ and ‘Young Goodman Brown.’ Here are your marshmallows.”