The Great American Novel by Phillip Roth is simultaneously one of the most ridiculous as well as cuttingly accurate pieces of American literature that I have ever read, and it is easily one of my favorite novels. At one point in the story, the protagonist is discussing the potential of A Great American Novel with none other than Ernest Hemingway while out fishing for marlin; although they do not agree who will be the writer of said novel–perhaps a dentist from Westchester County, New York or maybe a shoe repairman from Dingle, Idaho–they do agree that the novel will come to encapsulate all of the merit and culture of the United States at said given point. Reading this got me thinking that despite all of the great American travel writers there have been, there has never been any talk about The Great American Travelogue. Therefore, it is my pleasure to offer to you all three of my top picks for this honor.
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, Bill Bryson
The first of what would become Bill Bryson’s literary milieu, that of course being the great American travelogue, The Lost Continent is a brilliant exploration of Anytown, U.S.A. The novel chronicles Bryson’s 13,978 mile trip around the United States, well two trips: the first in Autumn 1987 which covered the Midwest, the Deep South, the East Coast, and New England, and the second in Spring 1988 to the Great Plains, the South West, California, and the Rocky Mountains. This book has actually been quite the inspiration for my own travels and subsequent writing because much like Bryson, I too am focussed on adventuring through what could be considered the underbelly of America. Avoiding tourist traps and instead attempting to experience a more genuine United States than is currently available through representations on TV sitcoms and popular culture alike. The novel is full of beautiful, slow moments that display Bryson’s knack for transporting the reader into the passenger seat, but it is also packed with laugh-out-loud scenes that will have you busting at the sides. I wouldn’t say that this particular journey is necessarily worth tracing step-by-step, but rather the way Bill Bryson approaches the concepts of travel and road tripping is bar none the spirit every traveler should aim to replicate: have fun, stay safe, and always choose the road less traveled.
The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux
I do realize that this novel does not take place on American soil, but the author Paul Theroux was born in the United States: Medford, Massachusetts to be exact. The novel recounts Theroux’s four-month journey by train from London to Asia and back again, this novel is almost anthological in its in-depth analysis of what it means to commit oneself to an enormous adventure. Theroux uses the novel as a platform to explore themes such as colonialism, American imperialism, poverty, among others. Though it too in many ways purports similar conceptions of cultural ignorance that were all too present in the 1970’s, Theroux’s novel does a wonderful job of bringing the journey to life for an audience. As is fairly explicit through a brief overlook of my own blog, I am particularly interested in Americana and those travel eccentricities related to it; however, I must concede that trains are the mode of travel that I would find most agreeable were I to hang up the old automobile for good. In a 2014 interview, Theroux explains: “It’s not the romance of the train but the pleasurable ordinariness and freedom – no interrogation beforehand, no metal detector, nothing to alarm you. You don’t leave the ground. And then the great weight of the thing howling on metal rails as you sit watching what Ford Madox Ford called ‘little bits of uncompleted life‘ out the window.” Pick this book up at a used bookstore if you are itching for an adventure, it is definitely a great American travelogue.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
“[This book should] in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practices […] It’s not very factual on motorcycles either,” wrote Robert Pirsig in one particular foreword for his now famous great American travelogue. Despite its quirky title, the novel contemplated many topics, from the relationship of humans and machines to the madness and roots of culture. As far as travelogues go, Pirsig’s magnum opus is less concerned with the actual journey itself, but finds itself more excited about the brilliant discussions and philosophical queries that can besiege someone who undergoes a feat such as this. It is understood that the book is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey the author made via motorcycle with his own son years prior. The novel balances several ideologies but regularly returns to those that tend to stand at opposite ends of the spectrum: Romantic viewpoints that focus on being in-the-moment vs. Rational analysis, aiming to master the mechanics. Pirsig’s novel is packed with thoughtful discovery and roundabout musings that for anyone who has spent a prolonged period of time on-the-road will instantly identify with.
There you have it, three excellent candidates for the title of The Great American Travelogue… Well, maybe not quite. I realize now that the whole purpose for the “Great American” is that there is a certain sense of intentionality about the writing. Of course all prose is written with the hope of conveying one meaning or another, to explore a set of ideas or to unpackage some concept, but what I learned from Phillip Roth’s novel especially is that the task of writing The Great American Novel has to be sabotaged from the start by the author themselves. Or at least this is just my interpretation of it. Either way, these are three wonderful American travelogues that truly deserve to be read, enjoy!