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Course Description

GLS 592: "Romancing the Road": Classic American Road Narratives

Intructor: Mike Wentworth

bookcover - Horatio's Drive bookcover -- On the Road bookcover -- Roll Nowhere

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
---Yogi Berra

"Oh, highway . . . you express me better than I can express myself.”
---Walt Whitman

"Go West, young man!”
---Horace Greeley

"Once a bum always a bum . . . when the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road from here seems broad and straight and sweet.”
---John Steinbeck

"Gotta move on!”
---Hank Snow

"Get your kicks on Route 66.”
---Bobby Troop

"Part of the American heritage is the spirit that hates a crabbed confinement. . . . The American will not tolerate the fate of being boxed in, like a trapped rat.”
---Max Lerner

"I ain’t got no home
I’m just a ramblin’ round
I’m just a wanderin’ man
I go from town to town
Police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
---Woody Guthrie

"Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
---Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)

"That’s my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that.”
---Nick Carraway (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

"I'm the ramblin’ man with the nervous feet
That never were made for a steady beat
I had many a job—for a little while
And nothing to do but go
So it’s beat it, Bo, while your feet are mates
Take a look at the whole United States
Oh, the fire and a pal and a smoke at night
And up again in the mornin’ bright
With nothing but road and sky in sight!
And nothing to do but go.”

“All aboard!”


From an early age I’ve been fascinated by the allure of travel, moving from one place to another. Such an inclination is perhaps as much a physiological condition as a psycho-emotional predisposition since when you stop and think about it, our bodies are 90% water, give or take a drop or two, and subject, if only fancifully, to those very forces that affect the cosmic tug and pull of our planetary water systems. More specific to our course, “American Roadways,” the notion of movement, or translocation, is at the very foundation of U.S. history since America was originally colonized for motives ranging from religious and political freedom and the promise of a new and better life to adventure and the lure of allegedly unbounded prosperity and wealth. Indeed, American society, historically considered, is, and has been, a society in transit. As such, the “American road” is a longstanding and enduring icon in American history and culture. Hence, the focus in our course on “American roadways.” A significant number, though not all, of our featured texts will consist of travel narratives that draw upon various forms of transit—walking, rafting, “riding the rails,” “auto-mobiling” (more often than not, “with no particular place to go”)—by way of such classic American roadways as the Mississippi River, the Appalachian Trail, Route 66, the Pacific Highway, and the Burlington-Northern rail system. Though such “road narratives” clearly invite literary analysis, we will consider such texts from other topical and disciplinary perspectives, including business and commerce, cultural and transportation geography, folkways and folk customs, history, photography, the popular media, psychology, and sociology.

In addition, we will delineate two separate, though at times interrelated, traditions that figure into American transcontinental travel: the naturalistic tradition where movement is dictated by necessity (the forced relocation of indigenous American Indian populations from their “native ground” to “reservation land,” the “underground railroad” that facilitated the fugitive transit of African-American slaves during the mid-nineteenth century, or the “Dust Bowl refugees” of the Great Depression who, as a result of economic and climatic disasters, were forced off their land in the American Midwest and Southwest to the “green, fruited pastures” of the American West; and a more visionary, romantic tradition where movement is motivated by wanderlust, a spirit of adventure, a restless urge to keep things moving “a little farther down the line” (think Lewis and Clark, Walt Whitman, Johnny Appleseed, the original ‘49ers long before Joe Montana, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the “catch-the-wind” free-lanced life-style of the classic American hobo, those legendary “easy riders” Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, you, yourself, perhaps?). At times, of course, the motives for “hitting the open road” may combine both naturalistic and romantic elements, a classic example of which is the immigrant experience in American history or, then again, the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath who, forced from their land in rural Oklahoma during the hard times of the Depression, set out on that most legendary and beloved of American highways, Route 66 (the “Mother Road”), to pursue the promise of a new and better life (the alleged legacy of every American) in California’s “pastures of plenty.”

Finally, we will examine the “American road” in relation to those bedrock values, beliefs, and ideals that inform the popular American consciousness. By way of illustration, one of the most intriguing tensions in much American road literature is that between the road as an affirmation of personal freedom and the permanence and stability of “hearth and home.” Thus in 1907, John Peele, a native of Tarboro, North Carolina, leaves his home to travel West (as recounted in From North Carolina to Southern California without a Ticket and How I Did It, Giving my Exciting Experiences as a “Hobo”) in the hope of alleviating a tubercular condition. Along the way, by his own admission, he is overcome by wanderlust and the romance of the open road. Eventually, however, he returns home to Tarboro, albeit reluctantly, when informed that his mother is dying, literally, of a broken heart over worry and concern for her “wayward son.” On the other hand, Dorothy, the freckled and braided heroine-naif in Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, travels the yellow brick road not so much as a matter of choice, though she does establish a number of formative relationships and learns a number of valuable life lessons, not the least of which is the ultimate confirmation of what she’s always known in her little Kansas heart of hearts—yes, of course, we all know “there’s no place like home” (click, click, click)--but rather as the means, in her own hopeful estimation, “to get back to where she once came from” (get back, Dorothy!). We will further discover that other bedrock American beliefs—e.g., rural simplicity, the nuclear family, romantic love, technology as savior, anti-intellectualism-- figure no less significantly in America’s continuing fascination and compelling engagement with the “open road.”

Required Texts

Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Ted Conover, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes
Robert Day, The Last Cattle Drive
Brad Denton, Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede
Jim Dodge, Not Fade Away
Ian Frazier, Great Plains
Eddie Harris, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest
Charles Johnson, Middle Passage
Henry Kizor, Zephyr: Tracking a Dream across America
Vachel Lindsay, Tramping across America
Mike McIntyre, The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless across America
Richard Menzies, Passing Through: An Existential Journey across America’s Outback
Jonathan Raban, Old Glory: A Voyage down the Mississippi
Mark Svenbold, Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America

Last Update: February 8, 2012


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