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My American Road Books


Jim McNiven

This is a condensed extract from the Introduction to my The Yankee Road, volume one of which has just been published by Wheatmark.

signpostAmericans, have added, in great numbers, to the road book literature. American stories of travel and roads have been conditioned by the general habit of a people constantly on the move. The road book, both fiction and non-fiction, was standard fare in twentieth-century writing. Toward the end of the last century, Kris Lackey attempted, in vain, to categorize this literature. Road books — those that use the road as a metaphor for life or as a means to connect with life — tend to defy pigeonholing, although Lackey manages to discern three major road themes: rediscovery of the self, observing the American condition, and the transcendental connection to the broader universe.

Somewhere on the road an experience will allow us to realize who we really are. The road that takes us west, especially, takes us to our real selves. So the transformation of life into space leads naturally into the crossing of space — travel — as a means of signifying life’s changes. Telling a tale about road books that have affected or symbolized a life’s phases seemed to me to be a good route to personal rediscovery. Here’s my life in road books…..

At Nineteen: Kerouac

In the 1930s and ’40s, Lowell, Massachusetts was a blue-collar town and a good part of its population came from Quebec, Jack Kerouac’s parents among them. The old mill town, where Jack Kerouac was born and brought up, has become, in large part, a historical center, and attracts a lot of tourists and kids off school buses.

Despite this tourism focus, the town doesn’t seem to know what to do with Jack Kerouac. Even though, as William Burroughs, Jack’s poet-friend and the model for “Old Bull Lee” in On The Road, claimed, “Woodstock rises from its pages” and “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levis.”

There is a Kerouac Park in Lowell, just off the main street, but it’s not easy to find — the perfect way to memorialize someone who is a bit of an embarrassment, but who is too famous, or infamous, not to acknowledge. Dedicated in 1988, and a little unkempt when I last visited, the site features a sculpture of pillars on which are Kerouac quotes. The pillars sit on a base that incorporates both the Catholic cross and the Buddhist circle. On one pillar, Kerouac refers to himself as a crazy, Catholic mystic. He was, as he put it elsewhere, “waiting for God to show His face.”

During and after the Second World War, Kerouac fell in with a group of poets, novelists, and assorted others who would become the core of the “Beat” Generation and its “weariness with all the conventions of the world.” He published a long novel about his upbringing in Lowell and New York in 1950. Sales were respectable enough to encourage him, and he produced a number of other autobiographical novels before Then there is “the rest of the story,” as radio’s Paul Harvey built a career telling us.

Kerouac’s autobiographical On The Road came out in 1957, but the events that inspired it had taken place a decade or so earlier. I was on my own for the first time, when I first read it at a remote northern Michigan engineering school where social relations were crude at best, and along came this paean to a life of travel, freedom, and irresponsibility. Had I never heard of the book, I might still have gone on drinking bouts on the shores of Lake Superior, roared down to Wisconsin to chase the girls at Oshkosh State Teacher’s College, or over to Hurley, Wisconsin, where Chicago gangsters used to unload their booze from Canada during Prohibition and where there were a hundred bars for the town’s thousand residents. But Kerouac gave it all a romance that no one could ever take away.

Kerouac apparently never saw himself as a social revolutionary. He was irritated by being blamed for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the 1960s. He turned away from his “Beat” friends and drank himself to death at the age of forty-four. Yet, Bob Dylan is said that On The Road “blew my mind” as a teenager in northern Minnesota. John Lennon, Van Morrison, David Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen all were influenced by it. Listen to Springsteen’s sing about him and his buddy Wayne going down to Darlington County from New York City, and you can see Cassady and Kerouac in the car.

Kerouac documented his restlessness as his character, Sal Paradise, whose five travels with his friend Dean Moriarity (in real life, Neal Cassady) from New York to Denver and San Francisco and back between 1947 and 1951 form the story. They were traveling in search, not of a new home or a new life, but of freedom. Freedom meant leaving somewhere, especially to Cassady, whose character, Dean, as one critic put it, “spends the book running away from messes he makes of his life,” while Sal tries to figure out how to live amid the mess handed him. Both of these impulses are amazingly powerful when one is eighteen.

At Twenty-nine: Pirsig

A decade later came Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig, his eleven-year-old son, and a couple, friends of Pirsig’s, motorcycle across the northern Great Plains toward the Montana Rockies and the university town where he once taught. Instead of Kerouac’s hectic bouncing between two coasts, there is only this meditative trip from Minnesota to Montana. Where Kerouac’s journey was almost frantic, Pirsig’s is dignified, almost stately. Along the way, Pirsig discusses the approach of a meticulous person who tries to understand his machine and do repairs and adjustments correctly. He ruminates on the ideas that once led him to a serious mental breakdown, especially the nature of “quality.”Pirsig refers to his former self as “Phaedrus,” a personality that is trying to reconstitute itself in opposition to the “new” Pirsig. Leaving the couple in Montana, Pirsig and his son continue along back roads to California. Pirsig might have had his reasons for traveling, but so had his son, who was looking for the father who had disappeared behind the hospital doors years ago.

There is a feeling in Zen that Pirsig was just then starting a new life and a career, something that was meaningful at a time when I was doing the same thing. In 1968, I took my wife, Jane, and three kids on a road trip northwest from Michigan across the border to Winnipeg, Manitoba. A college friend had written to see if I was interested in teaching at the University of Winnipeg. He knew that I had piled up debts as a graduate student with a family, and the tax treaty between the United States and Canada would enable me to save on paying taxes for the first two years of my stay in my father’s native land, so I could repay them. The temporary stay turned out to encompass a whole career.

People still retrace the route Pirsig, his son, and his friends took. Websites and discussions are devoted to him and his ideas. In his mid-eighties he was offered an honorary doctorate in philosophy by the university where Phaedrus taught and met his fate. Phaedrus had something in his grasp….

At Thirty-nine: Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon left a Missouri university to take a lengthy journey around America’s small towns. He titled his book Blue Highways, because,

On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now, even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk — times neither day nor night — the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.

Least Heat-Moon, who is part Indian and whose real surname, Trogdon, is that of an old North Carolina family, apparently lost his wife and his job on the same day. He then set out to find himself, visiting the people in the small towns on the blue highways. In his own way, he was looking for the nostalgic values that Ronald Reagan extolled on his path to the presidency: uniqueness and perhaps eccentricity, as well as the “rootedness” of the places he visited, something that Kerouac rebelled against and in which Pirsig had no interest.

Like Least Heat-Moon, I had also left university life, in my case to work in a government economic development department in mainly rural Nova Scotia, so his journey resonated strongly with me.

At Forty-nine: Kinsella

Around 1990, I discovered another resonant road book, this time by a Canadian, William Kinsella. His novel, Shoeless Joe, was made into the movie, “Field of Dreams.” Shoeless Joe concerns a not-very-successful Iowa farmer who hears a voice in his cornfield that leads him to construct a baseball field there that becomes populated by the spirits of the game’s stars of fifty years before. The protagonist then goes off on a journey to collect a famous author he read in his youth and a failed major-leaguer who had only one lifetime at-bat and bring them back to his field. In doing so, he saves the family farm, reconciles with his deceased father, and creates a new tourist destination. Kinsella, to me, captures better than anyone else the complex of values, hopes, and dreams of Americans at that time, especially those who were on the forward slope of the demographic hill called the “baby boom,” for whom roots and mortality were beginning to emerge as important.

At Fifty-nine: Brinkley

My road book for the millennium was The Majic Bus, writtenbyDouglas Brinkley before he became better known as a presidential historian. In its opening pages Brinkley relates how Kerouac affected him. A couple he had been waiting on in a Holiday Inn restaurant gave him their copy of On The Road

as if it were the Gideon Bible and instructed me to read it…I had never heard of Jack Kerouac…but the paperback cover immediately caught my eye — a ribbon of America’s highway disappearing into a blinding orange sun….From the first page, I was hooked.

The Majic Bus is the story of Brinkley, then a young Long Island professor, and a group of college students touring around America in a bus to get a feel for its history and culture, especially its modern popular culture. Brinkley’s misspelled bus was in homage to “Furthur,” the bus that took Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters across the country in 1964 to the World’s Fair in New York, coincidentally driven by none other than Kerouac’s old buddy, Neal Cassady.

Brinkley’s journey was more educational than Kerouac’s or Kesey’s, and it caused me to reflect on how diverse are the ways he and, by implication, I were spending our careers trying to help students understand the complexities of life.

At Sixty-nine: The WPA Guides

By 2010, older and nostalgic, I became attracted to the series of travel guides created between 1935 and 1943 by the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A make-work project for unemployed writers during the Great Depression, guides were published on the states, some cities and towns, some old “named” highways, ethnic and racial points of interest, and local historical sources.

Although the WPA Guides were meant for automobile tourism, they were edited with an eye to doing more than just promoting places and attractions. They provided comprehensive coverage of a state and some critical commentary on its history and places. They were not meant for the “good-time” tourist, instead, they leave the modern reader with a “feel” for early mid-20th century America, before the Interstates were built. Hardly literary masterpieces, they were written by young aspiring writers and “washed-up” editors, with varying approaches to history, fact gathering, and style.

The WPA Guides remind me of the world I knew when growing up. The romance of the road was in my blood early on. When I was four and a half and the Second World War had been over for a month or so, my parents loaded up the family’s Oldsmobile and left Michigan on a three-month odyssey through the Midwest, Southwest, and California, looking for new opportunities. My father was a printer, and in those early postwar days newspapers all across the country needed his skills. We worked our way west, my mother entertaining two boys and making a household in dozens of motels and cottages. Eventually, just before Christmas 1945, we headed back to Michigan at top speed, barring the inevitable “blowouts.” For more than sixty years, my parents never moved farther than five miles from where they had lived right after they were married. Not me.

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