An Informal Survey*
This is by needs an informal presentation, rather than a formal lecture or paper. For what our project is about defies being hemmed into a concise, conclusive essay. "On the Road in American Culture: An Internet Anthology" has become a web that continues to grow and expand. We can only try to keep up with it as it ramifies; in other words, we can trace some of its threads, but we cannot, and refuse to, describe its limits or borders, though we want to keep exploring its frontiers.
The road is America. That is the main impression conveyed by the sight of Tucumcari, New Mexico. On the arid plains of the Llano Estacado, a town of about 7,000 inhabitants stretches for almost five miles along route 66 (now called Interstate 40), two rows of truck stops, gas stations, diners, and motels. During the day, it is all just plain ugly; during the night, the gaudy exhibition of neon advertisements in the middle of nowhere is obscene. That aspect of the road attests to the vastness of the continent and a stifling cultural uniformity.
Literature whether capital "L" or no literature also attests to the idea that the road is America, but the proliferation of road novels and travel books displays an astonishing diversity. Compare Mark Twain, who almost always wrote about travel in one way or other, and Henry James, who did frequently at first primarily to earn the money he did not make with his fiction. Similar things may be said of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Herman Melville indeed, the majority of great American writers up until the 1960s were at one time or another preoccupied with versions of the road. Examplary are Frank Norris' The Octopus (focusing on the railroads and the sinister dealings of company bosses), Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (portraying the dullness of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota), and John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer (where in the end Jimmy Herf picks a ride out of New York and, when asked, "How fur ye goin?", answers, "I dunno. ... Pretty far"). Jack Kerouac's work is but one late example that the moving, wandering hero is central to American literature, while Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the nightmare continuation of Kerouac's road trips. The book seems a literary offspring of William Borroughs' Junkie and Naked Lunch, let loose from the grime of the metropolitan underworld and gone haywire in the desert of Nevada. When I heard that Fear and Loathing was made into a film incidentally released yesterday in the German version I was baffled. How could anyone want to try and make a movie out of that madness? The reviews I've seen so far echo my doubts and come to some staggering conclusions. Rudolf John under the title "Kadaver eines giftigen Insekts" in Thursday's Kurier [Oct. 15, 1998] concludes with a comment on "Instinktschauspieler Johnny Depp, der hier in einer Nebenform von Weggetreten zu agieren scheint, verrückt gewordene Nadel eines Kompasses, der immerfort zum Abgrund weist. Dort warten weder Gott noch Teufel, und Stoßgebete wollen nicht helfen: kein Erlöse uns von dem Speiübel, Amen. Nur verdammt in alle Blödigkeit."
I can only award the goof of the week to John, and I hasten to turn to a true master of rhetoric. Faulkner is not usually regarded as a road novelist, yet he may well be the greatest. I'm thinking primarily of As I Lay Dying, which depicts the Bundrens' funeral procession to bury the dead mother, a grotesque pilgrims' progress. In Light in August, roads also take on central importance. In the opening scene, Lena Grove walks along, pregnant, about to enter Jefferson, thinking, "I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece." At the end of the novel, less than two weeks later, she has given birth to a baby and still has not found the father of her child as she sits on a waggon leaving Jefferson and says, "My, my. A body does get round. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it's already Tennessee." Lena Grove's arrival and departure envelops the story of Joe Christmas, the orphan who is always on the run, and that narrative is also full of road scenes, predominantly cruel and violent ones.
If neither Hemingway nor Fitzgerald can be regarded as road novelists, The Sun Also Rises is in many ways a road novel, and all central scenes of The Great Gatsby relate to roads. Rushing from West Egg to Manhattan in cars, Gatsby and company pass by the Valley of Ashes and the billboard with the eyes of Dr. Eckleburger, and Gatsby's fall near the end is precipitated as Daisy Buchanan sits at the steering wheel when Myrtle Whatson is run over and killed by Gatsby's car. Other, vastly different books of the road personal, admittedly sentimental, favorites of mine are Woody Guthrie's autobiographic Bound for Glory and James Agee's A Death in the Family, which is less obviously a road novel though shaped entirely by a few compelling road scenes. The title refers to a father's death in a car accident. John Steinbeck must also be mentioned in this context, for he has at least half a dozen road novels to his name like Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus, and Travels with Charley in Search of America.
America is the road not only in the eyes of thousands of European tourists whose visit to the U.S. includes a week in a rented car to do the National Parks of the desert Southwest. America is the road that is also the echo of innumerous American folk songs, of traditionals like "The Roving Gambler" (which crossed the Atlantic with the early British settlers). The hobo has been a topic of what must surely be hundreds of tunes, and not only written by Woody Guthrie, but also by scores of others. Nashville and the Grand Old Opry couldn't exist without schmalzy road songs; John Denver's "Country Road" is a campfire favorite. Not quite so sweet is another classic, Dean Martin's raspy "Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let, fifty cents, ... a man of means by no means, king of the road." It is fitting that that tune was covered nicely by R.E.M. on Lifes Rich Pageant, their best album.
Bruce Springsteen got close to producing a true anthem of the road with "Born to Run" and the poignant lines, "In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream / . . . The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive" (888). The state of New Jersey in a plebiscite back in the late 70s (I think) almost voted to have "Born to Run" as an official state anthem. My personal favorite among the Boss's road songs opens on "Driving into Darlington County, Driving in on the Fourth of July." (888) Springsteen also produced one of the true classic albums of road songs, Nebraska. But there are others contenders, like Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, Jackson Browne's Running on Empty (888), the Allman Brothers Band's Check the Oil, Wipe the Windshield, and a Dollar Gas, and the best album of Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More For/From the Road.
If the road novel and the road song seem played out, so is the road movie. There are literally thousands of road movies according to Cinemania, the CD-ROM that is nicely done but is by no means exhaustive. Just a few days ago, the ORF had in its program Thelma and Louise, already a classic acclaimed for a nice touch as it recasts the model, Easy Rider, by focusing on two women. And that Easy Rider, though done on a low budget, wanted to cut to the core of the matter becomes obvious from the name ascribed to the character acted by Peter Fonda Captain America. Noteworthy road movies are The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford's film highlights the road episodes far more intensely than Steinbeck's novel and leaves out the last third of the book altogether, an omission that makes for a clear gain); American Graffiti; The Last Picture Show (another novel, this one by Larry McMurtry, turned into a film by an ambitious director, Peter Bogdanovitch); Badlands, Zabriskie Point, My Own Private Idaho etc etc etc My favorite film image of American roads is that of Charlie Chaplin (who was denied American citizenship), the little tramp with the derby hat walking down the road at the end of "The Tramp."
As the title of our project indicates, we want to produce an anthology, which my dictionary defines as "a book or other collection of selected writings by various authors, usually in the same literary form, of the same period, or on the same subject." We aim to collect as many interesting versions of THE ROAD in U.S. American culture as we possibly can. In doing so, we do not confine our interest to a particular kind of cultural artefact; that is to say, we do not want to privilege any particular genre, and we do not intend to perpetuate the distinction between forms of high, low, or popular culture. This means that EZ Riders is going to comprise works of literature, music and film without foregrounding any of these categories.
At the same time, we want EZ Riders to be more than an anthology, or rather, we would like the anthology to be more than merely a collection of quotes from songs, movies, and books. We want to do more than only present materials; we also want to reflect on these materials. In short, we want EZ Riders to be a critical project as well. As such, it aims at investigating particular aspects of individual works, the different meanings that THE ROAD assumes in such works, but also the connections between those works and the way they have influenced one another and have thus generated the meanings which the concept of THE ROAD has come to be associated with.
The centrality of the road in the American imagination is perhaps also at the bottom of the claim that for an American, a car is more important than an apartment, for one can sleep in a car but one cannot drive in an apartment. Another, quite different example is provided by Henry Adams, who is not normally associated with American roads though he included a lengthy account on the importance of the road in the History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (888). Adams, a compulsive globe-trotter in time and space, summed up his notions of travel in a 1902 letter to one of his nieces: "My idea of paradise is a perfect automobile going thirty miles an hour on a smooth road to a twelfth-century cathedral." Another example cropped up during the Woodstock Festival. Arlo Guthrie, who as a young man had the itch of the road inherited from his father Woody, pointed out the magnitude of the event in a significant way when he stepped up to the microphone and proclaimed, amazed: "New York State Thruway is closed, man."
My fascination with American Roads is long standing. I remember when it began. I was a seven-year-old boy, who was allowed, after insistent begging, to go to the movies for the first time. The film that had so attracted me was a documentary, Traumstraße der Welt, the first part, which presented the Panamerican Highway in North America, highlighting the natural wonders of the Desert Southwest, Utah and Arizona. Since then, Ive done more than 50,000 miles on American Highways, seeing 43 states; and having also written a dissertation on Kerouac (among others), I could not well abandon the road, even as electronic highways have made asphalt somewhat obsolete.
Why the internet, when it all began as a project of a CD-ROM we planned on making? The internet seems a unique tool, for it offers a chance to combine various forms of artistic expression. Text, image, and sound can be put next to each other, for purposes of comparison and contrast, but also of fusing, blending and overlaying. One can experiment with new modes of fabricating narratives and perhaps even with new forms of creating and presenting knowledge. The possibilities are fascinating and need to be explored.
The internet also offers unique possibilities with regard to authorship, for both the individual and collectives. It is not inhibited by traditional forms of publication; it is much cheaper and more readily accessible. All that is needed to offer the public any text, tune, or tape is basic computer knowledge and a few rules of programming. We learned most of what we know about Hypertext Markup Language in one night about a year ago, when we put together the core of our homepage.
Another advantage of the internet is that it is bi-directional, which is to say, it makes possible new forms of incorporating feedback as well as inviting global participation. We are currently expanding our base, establishing contacts to an American university through a former Fulbright guest professor, who has informed us that next Spring he will offer at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, a course on Studies in Early American Literature that will focus on travel/the road as a way to explore texts from 17th & 18th Century American Literature. His last e-mail stated flatly, "I anticipate virtual collaboration between Peoria & Vienna (a connection I'm sure the Habsburgs secretly envisioned) in this course and similar projects."
Needless to say, this collaboration would not be possible without the internet, or at least would be very difficult and expensive.
It is well to remember that what we uncover and point out in our anthology is entirely prefigured by gender, ethnicity and class. The road is largely, predominantly male, or was so for a long time. Women were exceptions like Sarah Kemble Knight, who in 1704 journeyed from Boston to New York. Accompanied only by local guides, she kept a journal of her tour, an early document of hazardous travel and road conditions in winter. Madame Knight braved the odds, even in such aggravated circumstances as a night in a road inn full of men drunk from rum and continuing to drink . . . at a time, when single rooms were not known to be had in American roadside inns.
Regarding the maleness of the road, consider also the image one has of life on a wagon train to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-19th century, when about 300,000 people crossed the continent from Missouri to build new homes in Oregon and California (888). That mass migration, part of American history, is a mine exploited by Hollywood. The image of those trails is usually that the settlers after extended fights with native tribes and enormous casualties finally reached their destination. Findings from recent field studies done along the Oregon Trail contest that image. According to those findings, less than half of the migrants were women, but women accounted for 70 percent of the deaths along the trail. And they were not, or rarely, the victims of bloodthirsty Indians Indian attacks accounted for less than 10 percent of the deaths along the trail those women died from injuries and exhaustion. The women cooked the food and the coffee in the morning, and the women generally drove the wagons over hazardous roads, while the men were out hunting and protecting wife and family from alleged Indian attacks.
The road in America is not only the open road traversing the West, but more and more, it has become the city street, bounded by narrow rows of walls and reigned by noise, filth, and violence. Stephen Crane may be regarded as an early chronicler of this change. His sensational debut novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, makes it clear in the opening sentence: "A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil's Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him."
Even when writing about the West, Stephen Crane turned roads into streets. Whether in Fort Romper, Nebraska, or in Yellow Sky, Texas, they are reigned by violence, the threat of an immanent bloody death.
John Steinbeck in his writings also blurs the distinction between road and street, particularly in Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Ken Kesey, a great admirer of Grapes, even compared the book to the Canterbury Tales incidentally a great precursor of all road narratives mentioned here. Steinbeck's great novel is also a prime example of what might be termed cross-fertilization (888). For it was not only made almost immediately into a movie, and an extraordinary one at that, as I already pointed out. When Woody Guthrie saw the film after its release in 1940, he sat down that same night and began "The Ballad of Tom Joad." The seventeen stanzas of the song were completed by next morning, and half a gallon of red wine had gone into it. (888)
In 1995, rock´n´roll singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen released an album titled The Ghost of Tom Joad, picking up on the existing versions of the Tom Joad theme that have already been mentioned. Springsteen´s move was surprising only at first sight: the metaphor that is tightly linked to the story of Tom Joad, namely the ROAD, has always been central to, even a trademark of, Springsteen´s music. In fact, Springsteen´s music neatly illustrates how far the concept of the road can be stretched and to what different ends the road metaphor can be employed. His first major success was the song that has already been mentioned here, Born to Run. Released in 1975, it evolves around the heavily escapist rock´n´roll romanticism of a guy and a girl heading out on the road together, putting their past behind, because they were born to run. This concept of the road has been so prevalent in Springsteen´s songs that in the course of time the singer himself seemed to develop second thoughts about it: Announcing Born to Run at a concert in 1988, Springsteen declared that "after he had put all those people in all those cars," he might actually have to figure out some place that those people where "born to go." Consequently, he introduced Born to Run as a song in which two people are "trying to find their way - home."
Whether Born to Run lends itself to such an interpretation is questionable. What cannot be doubted is that the album The Ghost of Tom Joad fits seamlessly into Springsteen´s long concern with visions of the road, while at the same time picking up the pieces of his forerunners. The Ghost of Tom Joad recurs to Springsteen´s album Nebraska and simultaneously points back not only to Woody Guthrie´s balad about Tom Joad, but all the way to Steinbeck´s novel. The songs evolve around lower-class wanderers, hobos, migrants, and drifters, and thus recast the dark vision of the road Steinbeck wrote about decades ago.
We don't want to submit meekly to all sorts of versions and perversions of the Zeitgeist and thus risk a "Wreck on the Highway" (the title of another Springsteen song), but we are "willin'," indeed "wheeling, to be moving" (as Lowell George sang in one of his greatest tunes).
What we finally want to do is extend an invitation. If you want to contribute to "Easy Riders: An Internet Anthology", feel free to do so. Don't hesitate. We only function as roadies, in charge of getting and keeping the show going.
* adapted from a presentation given during the official opening of the AAKH-Campus of the University of Vienna (October 17, 1998)
Authorship of individual passages is indicated by
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