McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Magali Cornier Michael
American, critique, cultural, road narrative, travel
Since the advent of the automobile in the early twentieth century, Americans have been preoccupied, as they always have been, given the country's history of exploration and expansion, with traveling the continent. The American road narrative began as an exploration of the beauty and diversity of the country and as a way to explore self, but it soon emerged as a vehicle for writers to examine the country and comment on change and progress--not always positively. As America transformed throughout the twentieth century, the hope of individuality and self-expression articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman morphed into a critique of the growing conformity, homogenization, and consumer culture that was equally feared by these writers. Thus a hope for the ideals inherent in America coupled with a disappointment when they fail to become manifest in the country are an integral part of the road narratives in this study: Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, and William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways. These road narratives engage with and critique conditions in the post-Great Depression U.S. such as the aforementioned conformity and homogenization. The central issue for each of these writers involves ideals, which create a type of nostalgia that warps their views of the U. S. before they set forth on their journeys. These ideals become formed mainly from the writers' reading in literature and history but also from their sometimes misplaced optimism in America as a land of freedom and originality. The resulting conflict between their ideals and the reality of the country they travel develops into an examination of the conflict between America's promises versus failures, potentials versus shortcomings, and blighted opportunities versus occasional signs of a surviving optimism.
Gipko, J. (2014). Road Narratives as Cultural Critiques: Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat-Moon (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/582