Martyn Beeny was into American music and American films long before he saw America. Now he does his part for American culture as an associate editor and marketing director for the South Dakota State Historical Society Press.
“One of the biggest things for me is that England was very small. It’s this very confined space that has a terrible tendency to always look backwards as opposed to ever looking forwards. It’s quite a negative country in some ways. Obviously I’m generalizing and stereotyping a little bit here.
“But you know the classic American idea is this American dream: Anybody can do anything, right? Cliched or not, it’s used, it’s said, it’s out there. You never hear anybody in England talking about, ‘Oh, you can do whatever you want. You’ve just got to try. You’ve just got to take that chance.’ It’s sort of, ‘Oof, I don’t know, that’s a bit risky, you might not want to do that, you might want to think, lower you standards or lower your goals a little bit.’ It’s much more that kind of negative thinking.
“And I think that small-mindedness, that narrow-mindedness, that overwhelming sense of being squashed – not just by the country but by the weather as well – everything squashes you. And then to start coming out to the U.S. and being told or hearing that over and over and over again, ‘Oh yeah, of course you can, just go for it, try it – if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Carry on.’”
And then, Beeny adds, there is space – especially if you end up in the heart of the continent in Pierre, South Dakota.
“It’s such a huge place. I grew up on this tiny little island. England is such a small place in many ways. It’s the same size in square miles or very close to South Dakota and has 60 million people. What does South Dakota have, 800,000 or something like that? So when I see South Dakota, I don’t see the same size place as England because there’s nobody here.
“I love the thought that I can drive two minutes out of town and be one of the only souls in existence, or that’s the way I feel. To come here and see this endless space, particularly when you go West River – obviously it’s not quite the same East River – is fascinating. It’s fascinating that there can be so much land and nobody on it. It doesn’t make much sense for a European’s mind. Why aren’t there people here? Until you learn why it’s not massively populated. Until you do that it’s such a strange concept.
“The other big difference about the space or the bigness, if you like, is that big sky idea. Because not only is the land massive, the sky is huge. The sky here is horizon to horizon.
“Whereas in England, it’s probably 30 degrees up, 20 degrees up before you get to sky because you’ve got trees and buildings and swells in the land.
“It makes you feel small, which I think is a good thing. I think everybody should feel small once in a while.”