Saturday, April 24, 2010

Thoughts on American Mobility

One of the "projects" I've been working on (mostly in my head) for the past few years is on the American road novel. I just started reading an interesting article (if you don't already have a JSTOR password, one can usually be obtained pretty easily through your local library) by Robert James Butler for it, and it focuses on a few concepts that I thought were worth repeating here. One of the things Butler points out in his introduction is that "Whereas journey books from English and Continental traditions direct movement toward a definite place, a coherent set of tested values, and a secure niche in a stable society, movement in American literature is often aggressively non-teleological" (Butler 80-81). Butler cites Homer, Cervantes and Defoe's works as representing the journey as a journey home, while American works by Twain, Kerouac and Whitman focus on the journey as more-or-less perpetual movement.

The title of this blog comes from a Lao Tzu quote, "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving," and thinking on this has made me wonder where exactly he wasn't intent on arriving, or, in the greater scheme of things, any of us is or isn't intent on arriving. I'd always considered this quote to be about appreciating the journey more than the destination, but I wonder now to what end that journey was being made.

An American friend once told me that the most wonderful part of travel is that it makes you appreciate home, which goes counter to Butler's argument, and much of American literature, and I found myself disagreeing with her in that my travels haven't made me appreciate home very much at all. Being home has made me appreciate being home, but any time I am "on the road," there isn't much of a nostalgia for the place I've left. Being home, on the other hand, does sometimes make me wish I was in a more perpetual motion.

Anyway, I guess this is a bit of a scattered entry, since I'm mostly still working these things out in my head (and will be for some time, since without the pressures and deadlines of school, this "project" could well last my entire lifetime in some sad Jamesian style), but I wanted to get it out on electronic-paper a bit, and see if I could get some other ideas and reactions. If anyone out there is reading this, why do you travel? What is the intention of your journey?

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting observation. As someone who's also working on a "journey book," I'm very intrigued by this distinction.

    I wonder if American road trips don't have more of an "ideological" destination, as opposed to a physical destination. It seems like a lot of American migration has been predicated on the "myth" of a destination (the idea of the "New World," the philosophy of manifest destiny & westward expansion) rather than a knowable place. I don't know if I could really substantiate this claim, but just off the top of my head . . .

    My JSTOR is on the fritz right now, but as soon as I've got it running again, I'm totally going to check that article out.