- Historic Sites
The most American of American literary genres is nearly as old as the motorcar itself
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
That violent end of the road found its Boswell in Hunter S. Thompson, whose Hell’s Angels (1967) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) are model studies of the terror that could descend upon Whitman’s Open Road. By the time Thompson’s character Raoul Duke got through destroying half the rent-a-cars in Vegas with a head full of scotch, speed, and LSD, the term road trip had taken on an entirely new meaning. Yet Thompson admitted that the automobile was hardly an outlaw symbol; in fact, it had become synonymous with suburban middle-class conformity. “Old elephants limp off to the hills to die,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing . “Old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death in huge cars.”
Yet, just as most Americans in the 1960s and 1970s supported the Vietnam War despite its lively literary detractors, they also refused to let Kerouac and Company hijack the more traditional, serene road narrative from their literary predecessors. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (1962), Erskine Caldwell’s Around About America (1964), and William Saroyan’s Short Drive, Sweet Chariot (1966), for example, are in the same sociological vein as A Hoosier Holiday : just some more world-renowned authors with silver hair and wrinkles trying to get back in touch with an American landscape they had lost track of. Saroyan, nearly sixty, found spiritual awakening behind the wheel of a Buick: “It isn’t simply driving at night, it is going on … to find out what’s out there now, not so much along the highway, in the terrain, under the sky, but in the interior of the driver himself.” So, if On the Road had inspired a million denim-clad teenagers to hit the highways of America in search of themselves, then Travels With Charley did the same for the senior citizens, who hurried out to buy Winnebagos, join “Good Sam Clubs,” and go, Go, GO with big dogs in tow to find the promised land of yesteryear.
“Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconsciousness,” Steinbeck wrote. “This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking.” Thus, older, more traditional American writers also used the automobile to lubricate reflections on the American dream. John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, for instance, traced the cycle of Harry Angstrom’s repeated flights down the highway from domestic unhappiness and then back again to family obligation— and his car dealership.
By the late 1970s the road had become more popular than ever. These folks heading out on vacation in the family station wagon were not reading On the Road and popping “black beauties” to make time. They just wanted to “see America” and enjoy everything in it, from Mount Rushmore to the stuffed jackalopes in curio shops throughout the Southwest. If the suburban set read any hook at all, it was probably Peter Jenkins’s 1979 blockbuster A Walk Across America , which was so inoffensive that both Hilly Graham and Oral Roberts recommended it to their congregations.
And while what had by then been christened the silent majority regarded the “CBS Evening News” anchorman Walter Cronkite as the most trusted man in America, his good humored sidekick Charles kuralt was a close second, thanks to his “On the Road” video features that celebrated small-town values and rural wonderments. In addition to his television reports and specials, Kuralt wrote no fewer than three “On the Road” hooks, all of which went to the top of the bestseller lists. Adding to this mainstreaming of road literature was William Least 11 eat Moon’s 1982 Blue Highways , a disgruntled English professor’s account of touring America’s back roads by van with a copy of Leaves of Grass always in reach. Moon, like Dreiser sixty-six years before him, sought out the authentic nooks and crannies in a nation overrun with industrialization, and an eager reading public was reassured by his affirmation that all was not lost. Like kuralt, Moon took a personally cathartic road trip and generally came home with a happy report on the state of the nation. After a turn down darker highways, the road book had returned to the optimism of its genre’s progenitor, A Hoosier Holiday .