Every age needs prophets—whether or not they heed their cautions—because prophets stand out of and often against the current.
Late in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans live with a kind of restlessness unprecedented by European standards of the day. Driven by the desire for prosperity and comfort, but nevertheless unfulfilled by it, they “clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.”
Perhaps it’s overdrawn, but there’s something to the stereotype of how Americans of all kinds find themselves drawn into materialistic short-termism. Whether this comes from the pressures of work, or the dreams of what pleasures and joys their money will provide, it’s a tendency with which most Americans seem to struggle, or one they simply embrace.
Drawing attention to these tendencies in democracy is an old tradition stretching back to the Greeks. Tocqueville echoes Plato’s depiction in the Republic of democratic souls flitting from one pursuit to the next with “neither order nor necessity” in their lives. The inability to hold to a moderate or prudent course may simply be the democratic political disease. Yet Tocqueville also noticed something novel to the modern American form of democratic life. Consider what Tocqueville relates about American attitudes toward travel and recreation:
… if at the end of a year crammed with work he has a little spare leisure, his restless curiosity goes with him traveling up and down the vast territories of the United States. Thus he will travel five hundred miles in a few days as a distraction from his happiness…. A man who has his heart set on nothing but the good things of this world is always in a hurry, for he has only a limited time in which to find them, get them, and enjoy them.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Americans read and write a great deal about travel, and in particular, stories about road trips.
In The American Road Trip and American Political Thought, Susan McWilliams Barndt looks to these narratives as a source for political theory, and as a basis for reflecting on some of the uncomfortable truths about American life that this literature reveals:
It should not surprise anyone that Americans might incline toward a mode of theorizing that is all about movement, mobility, and action. As many writers have observed, and just about as many have lamented, Americans are not a people with an abiding love of philosophical rumination.
While perhaps trailing slightly behind the self-help genre as the quintessentially American sort of book, the road trip story is ubiquitous in American literature. Barndt captures the diversity of these accounts, and the centrality of the road to American lives.
Tales from the road exclude our commonest experiences on them. For the most part, we don’t tell stories about our commutes or the way we move about familiar streets but rather something extraordinary: journeys across vast distances into the unknown and unforeseen. For the most part, these aren’t stories about taking to the road out of duty or a sense of well-conceived mission (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road may be an exception that helps prove the rule). As Barndt observes, we may be so drawn to them because Bruce Springsteen was on to something: democratic souls are born to run. She writes:
The characters in Springsteen’s song are not sure what they are supposed to do besides run, besides take to the streets and get moving. They are not entirely sure where they are supposed to go. They are living embodiments of Plato’s description of democracy: as a condition in which there may be freedom, but there is no form.
Those who take to the road don’t know what they’ll find—and many feel the call of the road trip because they’re lost to themselves.
Barndt takes us on an imaginative journey through five loose categories of road trips—seekers, walkers, laborers, bikers, and pretenders. Each of these offer a distinctive comment or critique of American life, but some common themes emerge in her account. Everyone in them is headed for something not quite within their grasp; American Road Trip explores tales of unfulfilled or unfulfillable longings, of strivings for ideals imperfectly realized in our workaday lives.
When Americans take to the road, we bring our hopes with us. Some of us prize our liberty above all; others yearn for greater equality. Barndt reminds her readers of a third, less often articulated ideal of community or fraternity. The trouble is that we don’t really know how to relate them to one another: “If Americans profess to privilege liberty and equality, what becomes of fraternity?” While we might extol the merits of one over the others, in reality we need all three—though we will never stop debating how to strike the right balance between them, and in particular, which of them should ultimately serve as the primary lodestar for our shared political life.
Barndt suggests that those immoderate, wandering souls who embark upon road trips tend toward the extremes, and the road itself works as a kind of laboratory that tests our commitments:
Americans seem destined ever to seek—ever to wish for, ever to quest for—ties that might bind all together in robust community and equal fellowship. But even if moments of fraternity or marriage or unity are possible, Americans seem doomed to a kind of lonely condition.
In these stories, the desire for freedom untethered from the demands of home and community, or one unchecked by the reciprocity that equality requires leads to no end of trouble.
Part of the problem flows from the way that taking to the road often involves the desire for control or mastery. Why do so many Americans think this way? In a perceptive comment on Thoreau, Barndt notes:
One can only cultivate nature; one cannot master or own it. Freedom lies in the act of cultivation, which involves some recognition of human and natural limits. By contrast, the pervasive American idea that freedom is somehow connected to mastery (over nature, over other humans) is incoherent, predicated on the idea that mastery is not only rightful but possible.
We use phrases like “I’m going to find myself,” and seek to shape our encounter with people and places on the road. The manner in which we plan our vacations or seek to mold our encounters to our own tastes is really about something more than our habits of consumption. The road is a place we disclose habits of our souls, and the ideals by which we guide or lives—whether we’re aware of these or not.
Some, like Cheryl Strayed, find something like Charles Taylor’s notion of “fullness” in their isolation and self-mastery on the road. Strayed developed “a feeling of clearness about herself, an acceptance of her life despite all its limitations, and an understanding that despite her missteps, she was no less deserving of love than any other human being—or any other natural creation.” Assuming we take her epiphany in the wilderness to indicate a change in her life, of the wandering souls Barndt presents in the book, Strayed might be the most obviously successful.
Though, I wonder: if she could only achieve this in nature, completely free and alone, what happened to her when she re-entered the ordinary world? Strayed can’t stay completely free, and neither can anyone else. The pursuit of unbounded freedom turns out to be illusory: Other people make demands on our time, our work, and if we’re fortunate, our hearts.
In On the Road, Kerouac’s characters are driven by the anxiety of losing relationships, of missing out on the community of the road. They “race around, trying to find each other” and “are all terrified of being left behind or left out.” But all too often, they overlook the pains and isolations of the road in favor of trying to regain control over their lives, and never quite succeed.
Apart from relationships with one’s own companions, equality seems least likely to be lived out on the road. The road is only hospitable to those who can afford its comforts, and who possess the means and opportunity to set out on it. The Grapes of Wrath offers a legitimate case of desperation, but consider: the Soviets thought the film would tell their people how awful America was, but they pulled it from theaters when they realized all their citizens could see was that the Joads fled West in an automobile.
We cultivate genuine liberty in tension with equality—and we can’t do it without a settled place. This is what makes those who set out in search of fraternity on the road’s marginal civilization both tragic and self-destructive.
Barndt provides a pointed example of this in Hunter S. Thompson’s encounter with the Hells Angels. These men escape the paradoxes of freedom in commercial life, and instead embrace a kind of violent fraternity. Despite being trained to the all-American language of individuality and freedom, Thompson recounts a conversation with Ralph “Sonny” Barger, a longtime leader in the club.
“We Angels live in our own world,” Barger says. “We just want to be left alone to be individualists….” But not two sentences later in the text… [Barger] rescinds his first proclamation. “Actually, we’re conformists…. To be an Angel, you have to conform to the rules of our society, and the Angels’ rules are the toughest anywhere….” [A]s Thompson makes clear, if Barger is right to so describe the Angels, theirs is a conformity of a very particular sort—one that celebrates belonging in non-belonging and celebrates affiliation in disaffiliation from the American mainstream.
Angry and alienated from society at large, at least partially bound to the harshness of life on the move, Thompson contended that the members of motorcycle clubs like the Hells Angels were miserable, but unable to admit that their violent community couldn’t provide a remedy. They live within an ethic of what Thompson called “total retaliation”—that is, a total rejection of liberal-democratic life—and at the same time attempt to live instead in an honor-and-respect drenched life on the fringes. It’s hard to read this account and not compare it to the lives of other violent fraternities. Despite appearances to the contrary, Antifa and the Proud Boys might be closer to each other than it seems.
Under the best conditions, Americans struggle to realize a balance between liberty, equality, and community, but these stories suggest a stable compromise between them cannot be found on the road. Barndt holds out the hope that as a “great mythic form,” these stories might help us free ourselves of the illusions that drive us onto the road—that paradoxically, these stories might lead us into a renewed appreciation for home. The challenge here is that the very things about these stories that might unsettle us are the very things we work so hard to avoid:
The modern liberal tradition that dominates American political history and practice lends itself to progressive narratives that tend to obscure enduring human limitations like our embodiedness and our mortality. The United States is a nation in which most public conversation, and most political discourse, avoid the tragic dimensions of human life.
Indeed, it’s arguable that one of the things that causes us to take to the road is to avoid embracing a tragic—or perhaps even a theologically chastened but hopeful—point of view. What’s striking about Barndt’s cross-section of road trip stories in this light is that so few of them consider the more radical possibility that the reason we cannot fulfill our longings on the road may relate to our spiritual homelessness here on earth.
Walker Percy suggested that the modern American is a theorist-consumer—restlessly attempting to explain our lives with all-too-partial visions of life, and coping in the meantime by collecting experiences that distract us from our anxieties and manic depression, our sadness amidst plenty. The search that so often leads us onto the road might really be about the restless soul’s unrecognized needs: everyone is looking for worldly goods that fundamentally don’t satisfy our hearts, or that stand in deep tension with one another: We want both community and individuality; we desire to enjoy our freedom amidst equality; we yearn for our acts to be meaningful, to bear purpose, but strain against the responsibility that this might portend; and we yearn to be wanted—to be necessary—but chafe at the interdependence or the more pointed feeling of dependence this creates. Those who take to the road often look for a new faith that might serve to unite or transcend these burdensome yearnings. But travel alone cannot offer rest.
The road calls to us for all of these reasons, and more, and we should be aware of its possibilities as much as its dangers. By examining the mythos of the American road trip, Barndt reopens the possibility for understanding what we need to truly be at home, and to embrace all the tragedy and joy it offers.