Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Off the Road

Before America became the Huge Pain in the Ass it seems to be for everyone currently involved with it, it’s interesting to think that for many reasonably hip writers America was once an unending source of romantic inspiration and discovery—particularly for Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and his spiritual heir, Jack Kerouac. They traveled across the country by road and by train, and then wrote of their adventures afterwards. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder often employed a similar agenda and all these writers enacted a confessional, autobiographical approach to American literature—let’s hit the road, experience something exceptional, and make literature out of it.

It’s lucky we have their books. Social paranoia did away with hitchhiking just as thoroughly as air travel eliminated long-distance railroads—it’s hard to imagine a more irritating and sterile mode of transportation than modern air travel. Digital America replaces regional identities: kids sitting over their laptops in a café in San Francisco are viewing the same stuff as their counterparts in Chicago or New York.

Interstate freeways and the accompanying roadside culture and shopping centers ensure that every traveler encounters nothing unfamiliar on his journey from coast to coast. The first time I hitchhiked across the country in 1959 there were no freeways between the Mississippi and California. Which at least meant that if you ordered a cheese-burger or home-baked apple-pie and ice-cream in one town it would likely taste quite different in the next.

The ensuing boredom with worsening conditions in the U.S. led travel writers to seek their adventures in the outside world, mainly in developing countries. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, writing in the 80’s, followed in the extraterritorial footsteps of the wonderful Robert Byron, and of the international meanderings of Eric Newby and Wilfrid Thesiger in the 50’s, who got into places without roads, let alone freeways.

As for confessionalist literature, it went out of fashion with postmodernism and language poetry during the first Reagan administration. Subjectivity itself became suspect, and experience gave way to formalism. Our best literature, insofar as it is decipherable, carries forward an ongoing cynical commentary on quotidian events. Literature which reflects biographical experience seems limited to journalism, where the topics of interest are common to many, like persons fighting incurable diseases or returning from the military and the like.

I am starting to wonder if the teleological demise of travel literature has reached its final chapters in Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Road. The story concerns a father and son who travel across the mountains to get to the West Coast, fighting against hunger, disease, and against a few hostile, starving survivors left from a devastating, country-wide calamity. The book is worth reading, although the narrative is more situational than plot-driven. Perhaps it represents the ultimate epitaph for two centuries of American travel literature, now vanished.

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