America has a fine tradition of travel literature that is often put down to the simple size and geography of the place. Since the distances to be travelled are large and people spend a lot of time travelling it becomes an important part of their lives. The advent of the car in the twentieth century continued the trend and we are now left with a glittering array of literary options to indulge it.
photo by gustaffo89
I have to start with On the Road, the quintessential American travel novel by Jack Kerouac. Evoking both the freedom of a long road trip and combining it with that of the young generation in 1950’s America, the book tells the adventures of Sal and his friends as they crisscross the continent. The book was written in three weeks in a ‘stream of consciousness style’ but was the result of several years’ worth of note taking and travel research by its author. On the Road is a great read, an excellent window into American life in the 1950’s and virtually mandatory reading for anyone embarking on a long drive across the country.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn portrays an idealised version of the Deep South of the US in the time before the Civil War. Reading about the adventures of Huck Finn can be great escapism and Mark Twain clearly feels great affection for the Southern landscape he evokes so well. However, the book’s take on the racial politics of the time is simplistic to the point of being offensive to many. This is certainly something to bear in mind while reading but do not let it spoil your enjoyment of this otherwise excellent book.
Moby Dick is unique in this list as it is an American novel but is almost entirely set away from the continental United States on a whaling ship plying its trade across the vast oceans of the world. Long sea journeys are almost unknown these days to travellers more used to long haul economy class air travel. However, this book about claustrophobic conditions, driving passions and intense on board rivalries may not be so unfamiliar to the average air passenger.
The Great Gatsby tells the story of the American Dream from the perspective of an outsider and so is perfect reading material for first time visitors. The long hot summer in which the story takes place is described so well, by perhaps the greatest of American authors, that it seems almost real at times. The action is set primarily on Long Island so this is not necessarily a travel novel but it’s still required reading for anyone hoping to develop an understanding of America.
The Lost Continent is the most modern of this selection and tells of the author Bill Bryson’s travels around America upon his return home from a lengthy period spent abroad. Bryson was of the generation of On the Road and so the two works are book ends of the baby boomer generation. There is a certain amount of pathos from Bryson as he sees the small town America of his youth disappear be replaced by the garish and anonymous commuter towns today’s visitors will encounter.