I Am No One - Patrick Flanery






At the time of my return to New York earlier this year I had been living in Oxford for more than a decade. Having failed to get tenure at Columbia I believed Britain might offer a way to restart my career, though I always planned to move back to America, imagining I would stay abroad for a few years at most. In the interim, however, America has changed so radically—by coincidence I left just after the attacks on New York—that I find myself feeling no less alienated now than I did during those long years in Britain.

Although I acquired British citizenship and owned a house in East Oxford on the rather optimistically named Divinity Road, which becomes gradually more affluent as it rises to the crest of a hill, Britain has no narrative of immigrant assimilation, so for my British colleagues and friends and students, it mattered little that I was legally one of them. First and last, I was and would always be an American. Perhaps if one comes at a younger age total acculturation is possible, but as a man in his forties my habits were too firmly in place to undergo whatever changes might have allowed me to become British in anything other than law.

When I was fresh out of my doctorate at Princeton, New York University was not one of the places I would have chosen to work, but I was thrilled when NYU’s History Department approached me to apply for a professorship and even happier when I was offered the position, assured at last that my years away from home were finished. It is surprising how much displacement can alter the mind, and while I went to Britain entirely of my own accord, I became restive after the first few years and increasingly resentful that I was being denied—it seemed to me then—access to a fully American life. I blamed my former colleagues at Columbia and whatever machinations had led to my not being awarded tenure and having thus to begin afresh as a rather lowly sounding Fellow and University Lecturer at one of Oxford’s older Colleges, which, though founded in the fifteenth century, does not attract the brightest students or have the largest endowment.

Nonetheless, I came to see it as a comfortable place to be, despite the workload being substantially greater than at a comparable American institution since Oxford has continued to teach students individually or in small groups, and there is an ever-expandable duty of pastoral care unlike anything in American academia. I became accustomed to the College chef sending me lunch in my rooms if he was not too busy, often including some tidbit (or as the British say, titbit) from the previous night’s High Table dinner. There were excellent wines in the College cellars and life ticked on as it had for centuries, with few changes other than the admission of women, which some dons in my time still regarded as an ill-thought-out modernization that had, they insisted, altered the character of Oxford irremediably.

I was lucky with the property market and before returning to New York this past July sold the house on Divinity Road for a staggering million dollars’ profit, which I invested in a house and some land overlooking the Hudson River a couple hours north of the city, while taking up NYU’s generously subsidized housing in the Silver Towers on Houston Street. Beautiful this apartment is not, but it is a five-minute walk to Bobst Library and I have relished being back in a city that feels global in a way Oxford certainly did not despite the