Every American road trip is different; thus every American road trip book is, and should be, different from every other. The beauty of such books done well has much to do with the nature of the country itself: so enormous and diverse, and so (if we’re honest) contingent and arbitrary in its history and geography, that any trip across or around it is bound to have as much to do with the personality of the road tripper, and the happenstances inherent in the act of traveling, as with any putative qualities of the vast abstraction that we call America. This is as it should be.
But it’s true that any of the rest of us who drive around America and write a book about it do so in the long shadow of a very famous writer’s very famous book. Many times during my road trip people reminded me, as if telling me something I didn’t know, that I was following in the tire treads of the great John Steinbeck, whose Travels with Charley: In Search of America was a bestseller in 1962, the year Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Travels with Charley quickly congealed into an uncritically admired timeless classic. But, in truth, the best thing about that book is that it occasioned the writing, fifty years later, of a much better book, Dogging Steinbeck (2012), in which Pittsburgh newspaperman Bill Steigerwald applied the principles of honest travel and journalism to expose the shameful fact that Steinbeck simply made up much of his ostensibly nonfiction book. Truth be told, though, the exposé was a byproduct of Steigerwald’s original intention, which was to compare the Americas of 1960 and 2010. What makes Steigerwald’s accomplishment especially impressive is that he had no axe to grind against Steinbeck; he simply did what journalists should do, which is to pay attention and ask timely and critical questions – exactly the things Steinbeck failed to do.
I agree with Steigerwald’s assertion that, if you make an American road trip and write a book about it, you shouldn’t take along either your dog or your wife (or, if we must be explicitly gender-inclusive, your husband/spouse/squeeze/whatever). What Steigerwald means is that traveling alone helps you stay alert. Steinbeck took both (though only his talking pedigree French poodle appears extensively in his bad book). The journalist and novelist Philip Caputo, known for his classic Vietnam book A Rumor of War, took his wife and two dogs in a vintage Airstream trailer, and the effect in his 2013 book The Longest Road is of spending a very long evening at the senior center looking at the vacation slides of a kindly but self-involved and dull retiree couple. Caputo’s premise is that the same flag flies over Key West, where he and his wife and dogs started their trip, and Deadhorse, Alaska, where they ended up, and isn’t that swell, with precious little reflection on how that fact illustrates that the United States are, effectively, an empire. (Something an American friend long resident in Haiti once said to me comes to mind: “When other people wave their countries’ flags, you think, ‘That’s nice, they love their country.’ When you see the American flag, you know people are going to die.”) Caputo’s book is not fraudulent like Steinbeck’s, but it is dreadful. Both prove that being a Famous Writer doesn’t suffice to write a great, or even good, American road trip book.
By contrast Carsick (2014), by the outré filmmaker John Waters, is a triumph because Waters had sufficient humility, sense of humor, and perspective on his own fame to turn it from an obstacle into a literary device. Throughout the book Waters frets alternately that he will be recognized and that he won’t be, and he carries – even once or twice makes use of – a “fame kit” that his staff put together for him. “I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever,” he informs us at the beginning. “I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?” The happy paradox is that it’s precisely by maintaining a light touch and not taking himself or his quixotic project too seriously that Waters has written what might well be a minor masterpiece. “The CHECK ENGINE light continues to add a touch of anxiety,” he writes near the end, somewhere in the desert in Nevada, “but we’ve risen above that – just that we’re still moving is proof we’re okay.”
Many other American road trip books can be ticked off in a list or litany: the bestseller Blue Highways (1982) by William Least Heat-Moon; From Sea to Shining Sea (1995) by the British foreign correspondent and travel writer Gavin Young; Driving Home (2014 – really a compiled episodic collection, written over two decades) by Jonathan Raban, another Brit, albeit one long naturalized and resident in Seattle. Then there’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller, just returned from Europe in the significant year 1939. Miller’s largely forgotten book is memorable especially for its title, which tells a lot of his story all by itself, but most of the others suffer from a datedness that paradoxically has to do with what seems a pointed and perverse avoidance of current politics. Or perhaps that’s an unfair charge; perhaps the authors can’t be faulted for the society’s relative quiescence at their times of writing. Then again, if your subject matter is not urgent, why not find different subject matter that is?
One should note, I suppose, that all of the writers I’ve cited have been white men, with the arguable or partial exception of William Least Heat-Moon. I can’t help that – though it’s worth wondering why more female and non-white writers don’t write American road trip books (or whether they do, but I just haven’t noticed). It might well be that women writers, and writers of color, feel less socially or physically safe traveling in many parts of the country. Fair enough. Then again, what revealing books might be written by such writers, under such conditions? What if, say, Zora Neale Hurston or James Baldwin had written an American road trip book?
Too much travel writing excuses itself from noticing, much less contextualizing, topical and political events. I suppose the excuse is that travel writers want to guard against their books growing dated. But there are ways to do that, and enforcing an absence of politics leaves a falsified depiction of a society. Bill Steigerwald demonstrates that Travels with Charley is not only factually fraudulent, but willfully myopic about the America of 1960. Having taken the time to read Steinbeck’s original handwritten manuscript at the Morgan Library in New York, Steigerwald shows that it includes extensive discussion of that year’s historic Kennedy-Nixon presidential election – all of which was scrubbed out of the published book, except for a very brief account of an argument between Steinbeck and his Republican sisters in Monterey. The scrubbing was done by Steinbeck’s editors, but then again it’s his name that’s on the book. He and they clearly preferred to pander to middle-class politesse, thereby selling a lot of books. But the single published passage that does report directly from the ground level of contemporary America – a compelling eyewitness account of white women (the then-notorious “Cheerleaders”) verbally abusing six-year-old Ruby Bridges as National Guard troops escorted her into school in New Orleans – hints maddeningly at the book that Steinbeck might have written.
My own purpose was, frankly, to do in 2012 what Steinbeck failed to do in 1960. And my conclusion at the end of Home Free is that “while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.” Not long before writing that, I had taken a university course in the history of the Moghul Empire. What happened to the Moghuls was that, in 1707, the Emperor Aurangzeb died aged 90 after 49 years on the throne, and after draining the empire’s treasury pursuing a series of ill-judged wars of conquest in South India, enforcing an extremist ideology, and concentrating power in his own person. The Moghul Empire continued officially to exist for another 150 years but steadily dwindled in territory and power, as the upstart British colonialists expanded to fill the vacuum until, following the “Great Mutiny” of 1857, the British abolished what remained of the Moghul court and banished the elderly last emperor into exile in Rangoon.
What I found especially intriguing was how, during those 150 years, Moghul governors had ruled regionally with increasing autonomy, while continuing to observe correct form by alleging that their authority emanated from the enfeebled central court in Delhi. The empire had become too sprawling and too lacking in shared purpose and respect for centralized authority, and the center had failed to hold. And, for the people living within its shrinking and fading boundaries, life had gone on – not necessarily as before, but even so it had gone on. Human beings had continued to live their lives as best they could, in changing times and conditions. In that humble fact, below the level of high politics, I found grounds for optimism.
Back in the here and now, the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie got on my nerves when she pronounced herself, in 2014 to an interviewer from The Guardian,
deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It’s a completely shocking failure, not of any individual writer … but it’s the strangest thing to look around and say, “Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?” At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.
Although Shamsie surely did not have me in mind – she probably hadn’t even heard of me – I took her words personally as a cheap shot, partly because I myself (an American writer) had done exactly what she seemed to be advocating, by writing ambitious topical travel books about two countries, one of them Shamsie’s own, whose stories are what they are, unfortunately, in large part because of American imperialism.
But additionally I felt that Shamsie failed to appreciate how much nationalist Kool-Aid Americans are made to drink from earliest childhood, and how difficult it is for many of us to see beyond our own continental horizon. I had sailed over that horizon as a young man and stayed away for nearly a decade and a half, and when I returned my eye had changed and I could see and write about my country in ways I could not have done before. I don’t excuse American myopia, but many Americans will never do what I did. And, when we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, we pledge it to a vast and amorphous entity whose merits, even if real, are entirely intangible, and whose real-world history and presence are all too tangible and often anything but benign. To let go of that allegiance, to relinquish attachment to the unattainable ideal and acknowledge the flawed and complicated reality, is a long and difficult intellectual and emotional journey. I intended my American road trip book as a personal memorandum from a patriot who is not a nationalist (in the senses in which George Orwell defined those terms in “Notes on Nationalism”), and as a record of my own awareness of the American reality at a particular moment in America’s history as both a domestic polity and an empire.
You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.