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The American Road Trip and American Political Thought

“We are immigrants still, who travel in time,

Bound where the thought of America beckons;

But we hold our course, and the wind is with us.

Richard Wilbur[1]


After the teacher asked if anyone had

            a sacred place

and the students fidgeted and shrank

 in their chairs, the most serious of all

            said it was his car,

being in it alone.”

-Stephen Dunn[2]


Not long after he left the White House, Harry Truman acquired a 1953 Chrysler New Yorker and set out with his wife, Bess, on a 2,500-mile road trip across the country. The trip, which is wonderfully detailed by Matthew Algeo in his book Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, seems like a charming oddity.[3] Imagining President Truman behind the wheel, stopping at diners and roadside attractions, creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in the American mind. Outside of highly scripted (and photographed) campaign stops, the idea of American public figures and American road trips do not cohabit easily in the national imagination. While people are used to thinking about Americans going on road trips, and people are used to thinking about American politics, people do not often think about the two of them together.

And yet, the two do go together. President Truman did in fact get behind the wheel. American road trips and American politics are bound up in the same stories. That is the premise of this book: that stories of American road trips are an important form of American political thought, and certainly more central to American political thought than almost anyone has recognized before. Reading the American road trip is a way to read more deeply into the traditions and trajectories of American political thought. It is an exciting and revealing adventure, an intellectual journey that mirrors all those journeys on the road.

In general, looking at road trips in terms of political thought and theory is not a new enterprise. Road trips—and road trip stories—have a long provenance in political theory. In fact, the history of the latter is inseparable from the former. What became political theory as it is known and practiced today emerged in ancient Greece out of an official political program of travel: theoria. Theoria worked like this: a city-state would appoint a theoros to travel around to other city-states. The theoros was expected to attend festivals, talk to the locals, learn about manners and customs and laws, and then report back on what he had seen. The theoros, in other words, had to go on a road trip and then offer up a road trip story when he got home.

The ancient Greeks believed that in doing this kind of travel, the theoros amassed a special kind of political wisdom. By seeing in practice so many of the different ways in which human societies can manage themselves, the theoros was in a unique position to be able to consider the range of political possibilities that exist in the world. He—in ancient Greece, it was always a he—bore witness to cultural variety and was able, on the basis of that witness, to speak with some authority about the relative merits of different forms of social and political organization.[4]

Over time, in ancient Greece, theoria as travel practice morphed into theory, and particularly political theory, as it is known today. The mission of the theoros, to consider what arrangements might be better and worse for political flourishing, led almost inexorably to the consideration of what might be the best political order—a speculative and intellectual endeavor that became less and less tethered to the experience and narration of road trips. Over the course of a few generations, the road tripping style of Herodotus (in whose Histories is the first recorded mention of theoria) yielded to the abstract philosophizing of Socrates, who famously resisted leaving the city of Athens.

But theoria left its imprint on theory, so much so that one theorist has argued that political theory might be best understood as a particular subspecies of travel literature.[5] After all, political theory is an enterprise in which thinkers attempt to transcend conventional boundaries through acts of imaginative dislocation and unsettling. (Consider that even John Rawls, who is hardly a road-tripper in the most conventional sense, asks his readers at a key moment in the development of his argument to imagine being transporting to a hypothetical place outside of their own positionality.)[6] And reading, the primary activity in which the academic discipline of political theory is involved, is itself a form of imaginative travel: taking its participants into stories of places and lives other than their own and, to some degree, into the head of the author or authors who penned them.

From the proposition that road trip stories and political theorizing are more closely connected than is generally assumed or realized, it becomes clearer why reading the American road trip might be a matter of political and theoretical significance. If political theory in general emerged from stories of travel, then it seems worthwhile to look to American stories of travel for a similar theoretical emergence. That is what this book does, considering American road trip literature as a particular species of American political theory—and an important species of American political theory—that most people have not previously recognized as such.

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. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it back in the 1830s, after he had completed his own American road trip of sorts, “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”[7] For Tocqueville, it was a thought so important that he made it the first sentence of the second volume of his epic Democracy in America. Tocqueville described Americans as a restless people, a people always in motion and ready to move onto the next thing. Americans, in his account, are materially (or what many might call “practically”) oriented, neither culturally nor constitutionally inclined to sit around and dally in philosophical abstractions.

When it comes to political questions, it is easy to conclude that the general rule holds true—that the country’s general suspicion of philosophical pursuits is reflected in American political thinking (especially in the political thinking done by Americans, about America). Many scholars have observed that American political thought tends to be oriented toward practical problems and specific issues rather than philosophical matters.[8] In so many of the standard-bearing classics of American political thought, like The Federalist Papers (with its conviction that there are practical answers to enduring philosophical problems of politics), that does seem to be true. And it may even be the case that the underlying democratic creed of the United States is itself oriented toward practicality because, in a democratically oriented system, large numbers of people must be willing to take action—to vote, run for office, and so on—for that system to work.

At the same time, it is not new to argue that in a country with such deep suspicion of philosophy “for its own sake” (as the saying goes), philosophical seeking might be sublimated or redirected into other communicative forms. In other words, Americans may not enjoy philosophy in its starkest, most traditional forms, but they do have serious questions and concerns that get expressed in other ways. Many political theorists, for instance, have argued that American political philosophy is at its most diverse and most developed in American fiction.[9] In short stories and novels, American thinkers have used storytelling as a way of simultaneously entertaining readers and raising big-picture, philosophical questions about American politics. Those include questions about what it means to be an American, who gets counted as an American, what American ideals look like in practice, and where the tragic flaws of the American republic might lie. Literature has been a key vehicle for American political philosophy because of its capacity to engage as well as instruct, to teach through entertainment and indirection, in a culture where more apparent forms of philosophizing are rarely tolerated, if not openly derided.

The arguments presented in this book owe largely to that line of thinking. The American road trip tradition, as expressed in stories on the page and in film and in song, is a tradition that expresses and investigates some of these central theoretical questions about American politics. More than that, even: given the leanings of American culture, the road trip story tradition is always pulsing at the heart of things. After all, in light of Tocqueville’s observation about the way in which Americans privilege motion and idealize mobility, it is hard not to see the tradition of American road trip stories as a means of expression that engages with something that is central to American cultural and political thought. American road trip stories simultaneously work to create and reaffirm the zeitgeist. They are a form of philosophy—and particularly political philosophy—in motion. As many of the chapters in this book make clear, American road trip stories are so often framed in philosophical terms. They are posited explicitly as intellectual or spiritual journeys through the landscape, and particularly as journeys in search of the meaning of the United States of America itself—like when John Steinbeck took to the road with his dog, Charley, “in search of America.”[10]

In an even more concrete sense, road trips have a key connection to the very origins of the United States of America—to the country’s political framing, in fact. Though people conventionally associate the American road trip tradition with the advent of automobile transportation in the twentieth century, roads are an important element of American political identity and aspiration going back to the founding era. More than once in The Federalist Papers, the most famous of the documents written by supporters of the Constitution, its authors—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay—bring up how important roads are going to be in the new republic. This is a detail that is easy to miss, but it is materially critical to the proposed constitutional order.[11]

To elaborate: as students of the American founding know, the critical theoretical move in The Federalist Papers is its unprecedented defense of large-scale republican government. Before The Federalist Papers were written, the dominant agreement among political theorists, made perhaps most explicit in the writings of Montesquieu, was that democratic governance is best suited to small-scale polities. The idea was that democratic governance requires face-to-face interaction and widespread participation, and that becomes exponentially more difficult as the size of a country increases.

In Federalist 10, James Madison takes on that logic by saying that no, the greatest danger to any democratic society is the danger of faction: the danger that some portion of the population will conspire to revolt or rebel or otherwise violently overthrow the rule of law. That danger is greatest, Madison says, in a small country where it is relatively easy to form a factional force. By contrast, if one “extends the sphere,” factional energies are dispersed, making it harder for would-be factions to form, and making it a lot tougher for factions that do form to do any real damage to the standing order.[12] Contrary to what Montesquieu and others have claimed, Madison argues, a large republic is a safer bet than a small republic and therefore provides more desirable conditions for democratic commitments to flourish. The United States of America under the Constitution is predicated on, for lack of a better word, bigness (or as the writers of the long-running American television show “The Simpsons” might say, “embiggening.”)

But because such bigness in a republic is unprecedented, Madison and the other authors of The Federalist Papers spend most of their time in their work talking about how that large-scale republicanism is going to work in practice. The most explicitly political elements of their discussion should be familiar to anyone who has studied the American founding: there is lots of discussion of federalism, of the distribution of powers between national and state governments, and so on. But on more than one occasion, roads show up as a key part of the Federalist plan. In Federalist 14, Madison notes that one of the classic objections to large-scale republicanism is that “the natural limit of a republic is that distance from the center which will barely allow the representatives of the people to meet as often as may be necessary for public affairs.” In other words, a republic cannot be so large that its representatives have trouble assembling to conduct public business. “Can it be said that the limits of the United States exceed this distance?” Madison asks. While acknowledging the vast scale of the country, Madison says that it will not be hard at all for representatives to gather to do public business, and that is in large measure because the new government is going to build a lot of roads:

“The intercourse throughout the Union will be facilitated by new improvements. Roads will everywhere be shortened and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout, the whole extent of the thirteen States.”[13]

In Federalist 42, Madison again returns to the subject of roads. Here, he wants to defend, explicitly, the power of the proposed national government to construct post roads. “The power of establishing post roads must, in every view, be a harmless power and may, perhaps, by judicious management, become productive of great public conveniency,” he writes. “Nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the States can be deemed unworthy of the public care.”[14] It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the Federalist plan, the plan of the United States Constitution, depends on facilitating road trips.

From the beginning, the government of the United States involved plans to invest in the construction of roads, roads that Americans are meant to journey along, roads for the road trip. Roads, from the nation’s formal political origins, were envisioned as an important part of defense, given the challenges of protecting a large and diffuse territory. Roads were a key part of the communication and transportation networks that the founders saw as key to the realization of successful large-scale republican government. Roads also, as many generations of American leaders argued, would allow the United States to continue to expand in size, moving West toward whatever the nation’s future might be.

When in 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act—the act that so many have seen as a revolution in American life—it was in fact the continuation of an old legacy of road-building by the American government. It makes sense, then, that roads have always been conceived of in the United States as a public space with political import. One of the consistent themes in stories of the American road trip, several of which are discussed in the forthcoming pages, is the question of public membership and belonging in a society that celebrates its promotions of individual freedom.

When Thelma and Louise, heroines of the eponymous 1991 film, find that the road they had imagined as one of liberation is actually one of sexual manipulation and violence, it is not hard to miss the broader question in play: Are the vaunted public freedoms of American life really accessible to its female inhabitants, even in an ostensibly liberated age? Access to roads is a tangible metric, in the American imagination, of access to equality, to opportunity, to mobility—to all the things, in other words, that are taken to be constitutive of the American Dream. If American road trips are symbolic of American freedom (and indeed, Hannah Arendt argues that “being able to depart for where we will is the prototypal gesture of being free”), American road trip stories often interrogate, quite explicitly, to whom that freedom belongs and to whom that freedom is denied.[15] In this day when the Black Lives Matter movement has helped bring renewed attention to racism in the United States, it is notable that much of that conversation has coalesced around images of what happens on American roads. The danger of “Driving While Black,” as it has been called, has come to stand in for and symbolize much broader systematic failures and exclusions. Though egregious acts of racial violence happen across the American landscape every day, it seems that disproportionate attention gets paid to those acts that happen on public roads.

That may be because, thanks largely to the federal government’s early and consistent involvement with the construction and maintenance of roads, roads may be the most widely familiar and commonly experienced spaces in American public life—and therefore the spaces most open to empathetic recognition. Other examples of public infrastructure in the United States—schools, parks, municipal buildings—have been subject to much less federal control and as a result can look and feel different in different parts of the country. And perhaps needless to say, there is vast difference when it comes to the look and feel of the private, domestic spaces of American lives. But roads are relatively uniform and aesthetically simple, a fact that was the first thing two Soviet visitors to the United States in 1935 reported back to their countrymen about America.[16] In this vast and diverse nation, the nation of the Federalists’ imagination, roads have been a great source of unification, not just in that they connect different places together but in that they provide a shared kind of public space, designed to be easily navigable. If I hear a story about something that happened outside your front steps, I may or may not be able to imagine myself in your place. In such a big country, the basic features of neighborhoods and landscapes vary dramatically. But when stories highlight the experience of motorists in their cars on the highway, it is easy to imagine oneself in their place.[17] Virtually everyone knows just what it is like to be stuck in traffic or to be pulled over by a police officer or to miss a freeway exit. (I am reminded that a few years ago, when the prompt for one of my college’s application essays asked students to imagine they were on a road and saw something, the answers were unusually uniform. “This year, I have learned that all the roads in America look alike,” one of the admission officers said to me.)

The American road may well be, in the end, the central site of shared experience and democratic recognition in the United States. Thus, one way to read stories of the American road trip is as a form that sets the private experiences of Americans against the background of American public space. That juxtaposition has the effect of setting into relief matters of political identity and membership, matters of civic equality, and matters of freedom. It puts the public platitudes to the test of lived, personal experience in all its diverse American manifestations.

The word “diverse” in that last sentence is an important one: One of the signature features of American road trip stories is the attention they draw to the diversity of the United States. The relatively homogenous interstate system can take cars through the Kansas plains to California beaches and back again, past Chinatowns and Little Somalias, alongside RV parks and McMansions. While only some road trippers approach their journeys with the explicit aim of encountering American diversity, a consistent theme in American road trip literature is the almost unimaginable scope of the country. Road trip stories invariably call to mind the great dictum of Nathaniel Hawthorne—a writer who dabbled in road trip stories himself—that America is “too vast by far to be taken into one small human heart.”[18]

There is an interesting tension, in almost all the American road trip stories discussed in this book (and in almost all of the American road trip stories that are not discussed in this book), between an overwhelming enthusiasm for the diversity of American life—for the possibilities and opportunities it offers, for the wonder that comes from a consideration of the vast human cultural variety contained within this single regime—and the concomitant recognition that this diversity creates all sorts of practical difficulties among us. Even as they can be a source of excitement and inspiration, the many forms of diversity and difference in the United States can lead to misunderstandings and misrecognition, feelings of isolation and separation, and even conflict and violence. Reading the American road trip thus raises key questions about the large-scale diversity of the United States, about the advantages such diversity offers and the challenges it imposes, and about what it means to live in a multicultural and plural but “united” political body.

There has been a lot of scholarly work done on travel narratives in general, and that work consistently emphasizes the ways in which travel narratives foreground considerations of diversity. Whatever else travel stories do, they describe encounters with difference and unfamiliarity. In general, travel narratives force the asking of questions like: What possibilities are there for human interaction when people are interacting with those they identify as unfamiliar, or “other”? To what extent is the idea of “otherness” even meaningful?

In the United States, that quality of travel narratives takes on a special meaning. For while most scholarly work on travel narratives focuses on international travel—travel that crosses major political and legal borders—American road trip stories are travel narratives that take place within a single political and legal order, mostly by people who have a claim to membership (if not citizenship) within that order. While, to be sure, some American road trip stories make occasional mention of the legal differences between states, the underlying assumption of most American road trip stories is that they are taking place in one country, within the bounds of a single political regime. It is not as easy to ascribe visible cultural and social differences to differences in legal and political structures, the way a traveler might if she crossed the border between, say, France and Italy. In so many American road trip stories, one of the animating drives is to try to do what Hawthorne deemed impossible: to try to experience the vastness and the diversity of the United States in a single grand swoop, thereby coming closer to an understanding of the whole (though the full experience of that whole remains elusive).

In this big and diverse nation, American road trip stories also often take the form of someone’s search for a discrete place to fit in, a niche in which to belong. Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which he penned in 1945, is a good case in point. Having just returned from a self-imposed exile in Paris, Miller travels around the United States looking for a place for the artist. Miller’s search is both personal—he is looking for a discrete location where he as an individual feels able to flourish—and more broadly symbolic. Is there room for true artistry in the United States, he wonders? (For his part, Miller decides the answer is no.)[19] The political resonance of those kinds of searches should be obvious. They call into question the true extent of the diversity of the United States. They test the values of openness and liberality to which Americans love to lay claim. And they foreground the continual challenge of individual flourishing, even in a society committed in theory to individual freedom.

Perhaps because American road trip stories foreground questions of diversity and belonging in these ways, one of the exciting features of American road trip stories is that there has always been great diversity in their authorship. Even if most people tend to think of white, male, twentieth-century figures—Kerouac, Thompson, the guys in “Easy Rider”—when they think of American road trip stories, the truth is that road trip stories in the United States have been written by people of all walks and ranks and times. For instance, despite the fact that many have seen the road as a privileged male space, there are countless American road trip stories composed by women—in fact, by many accounts the first American road trip story is Sarah Kemble Knight’s The Journal of Madam Knight, written in 1704. And because the escape from slavery required travel, some of the most important writings by former American slaves took road-trip story form. Within the American tradition, travel narratives give voice to an astonishingly diverse set of perspectives, focused on questions that might boil down to: In the end, what does this country look like? In the end, what is this country all about?

There are so many American road trip stories, in fact, that it would be an impossible endeavor to represent them all in one book. (Returning to Hawthorne’s line: if America is a nation too vast to be captured in a single human heart, American road trip stories are too vast to be captured in a single human book.) The focus in the pages that follow is on reading a few American road trips that are both representative and instructive. For those readers who are interested in reading the American road trip more broadly, a long list of other American road trip stories is included in an appendix.

Each chapter focuses on a pervasive type of American road trip protagonist: the seeker, the walker, the laborer, the biker, and the pretender. This division of chapters relies obliquely on an ancient Greek way of thinking about travelers. Rather than having an all-encompassing word to describe those who journeyed in the world, they had a number of different words to capture the fact that people go on road trips for different reasons, with different emphases and plans and attitudes and visions. (Theoros was one, of course, to denote the traveler who went in search of knowledge and planned to return home.) In reading the American road trip, it seems useful to follow the Greek example in that regard; it helps to open up the many political dimensions and dynamics that are captured in the vast array of American road trip stories.

Chapter One, “The Seekers,” looks at Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. For both Whitman and Kerouac, the American road is a source of great meaning: a place of individual liberation and democratic exploration that charges the imagination and expands the soul. Theirs seem at first to be rhapsodic works, positing road trips as essential, existential journeys within the context of American life. Contemporary road-trip enthusiasts tend to treat one or both of those works as core spiritual texts, sources of inspiration and models of the genre. Yet in both “Song of the Open Road” and On the Road, there exist darker strains, underlying discomfort with what it means to be “at home” in America, and underlying anxiety about the inequalities of American freedom. This book begins with Whitman and Kerouac because they each see road trip stories as emblematic of a central difficulty —what they each see as the central difficulty—in American political life. For Whitman and Kerouac, the public road is a place that symbolizes America’s great public promises: the promises of individual liberty and democratic equality. But the public road is also a place where Americans encounter others mostly in passing and where ordinary connections are both ephemeral and superficial. This raises the questions: Are pledged political commitments to liberty and equality enough to bind Americans together? To forge community? What is the nature of nationhood, in a nation that is rooted, paradoxically, in mobility? Together, these central works of the American road trip tradition suggest that believing in the American dream might doom Americans to disappointment, that Americans seek belonging and fellowship in ways that enhance their loneliness and isolation, and that pursuing the highest American political ideals might alienate one from conventional American life.

In Chapter Two, “The Walkers,” the focus is on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking” and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. While conventional pictures of the American road trip almost always involve a car, there is a long tradition of road-trip writing in the United States that is vehicle-free. In fact, for walkers like Thoreau and Strayed, pedestrianism is a tangibly countercultural act—a means of physically embodying resistance to an American culture in which speed, busyness, and mobility seem to be bedrock values. Each writer tries to enact, through a road trip, a space of resistance and reflection that offers critical distance and freedom from the prevailing society. Both “Walking” and Wild are American road trip stories that raise questions about the extent to which American public culture, ostensibly committed to freedom, is actually productive of human freedom in the most meaningful ways. The performance of walking, both on the ground and on the page, attracts attention and invites questions that provoke moral and political reflection. Walking, as Thoreau and Strayed write about it, is also a way of reacquainting one’s self, through the disciplined action of one’s own body, with the possibilities of freedom outside the conventional and civic understandings of such. Both the act of walking and reading about walking are acts of cultivation that provide the necessary groundwork for political reimagination, particularly the reimagination of freedom in an America where that term is habitually misunderstood.

Chapter Three, “The Laborers,” discusses Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Both books counteract the most romanticized notion of American road trips in one obvious sense. They tell stories of road trips that lead to disempowerment, servitude, imprisonment, and even death in the face of an impersonal and inhumane set of legal and economic arrangements. In so doing, they seem to contradict if not undo entirely the mainstream mythos of the American road, and American political self-understanding more generally. Yet what is fascinating about both Twelve Years a Slave and The Grapes of Wrath is that, even as they work against the narrative that American roads are places of limitless liberation, they also partake in and even bolster that narrative. Both books partake, in the same road trip stories that showcase the role of the road in systems of political domination and economic exploitation, in the fantasy that the road for individual liberation and communal empowerment. In their complexity in this regard, these road trip stories emblematize the conflict and complexity of the American dream, in which both the nightmare and the fantasy scenarios play out on the same public roads.

Chapter Four, “The Bikers,” features Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Erika Lopez’s Flaming Iguanas, stories of that most mythicized of American vehicles: the motorcycle. In both books, the motorcycle riders who take to the American road do so because they say—and seem to think—that they want to embrace American traditions of rugged individualism. But as their stories play out, it becomes clear that individualism is not really what they want to embrace. In fact, by the end of both stories it seems like, in different ways, these motorcycle riders are looking for the opposite: for some alternative to a culture of liberal individualism that atomizes and separates people (and in doing so, often deprives individuals of the feeling of dignity that comes with community membership and public recognition). The problem, in both cases, is that it is hard for these Americans to see outside the language and mythology of rugged individualism; the motorcycle riders are atomized individuals who quite literally do not have the words to speak of the desires they have to live lives that are not atomized, and that are experienced as more than individual. They default to the very language that fails them, dead-ending them into the very cul-de-sacs they had hoped to escape. That leaves the Angels and Jolene to continue to operate in the realm of public performance, gunning their engines through town and wearing leather jackets, in lieu of seeking (or even recognizing the possibilities for seeking) substantial political transformation. They have embraced a cultural myth and ultimately become beholden to the perpetuation of that myth, even as—if only in fits and starts—they realize that myth is never going to bring them what they really and truly want.

Finally, Chapter Five, “The Pretenders,” considers Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and D.W. Griffin’s Black Like Me. One does not have to think long about road-tripping to realize that, because it brings one into contact with strangers, it opens up possibilities for reinvention of the self. (“I love traveling alone because I can reinvent myself with each encounter,” writes one travel-advice guru.)[20] Of course, one form of reinvention is fabrication. Both Twain and Griffin, in their road trip stories, tell travel stories in which disguise, manipulation, and trickery are the currency of movement. In both Black Like Me and Huckleberry Finn, the road-trip story functions as a way to reveal the systematic deceptions of American politics and American culture, especially as they pertain to the concept of freedom. In both books, the road-tripper’s assumption of a position that most Americans take to be an embodiment of freedom—the position of a traveler, leaving home, becoming unbound from the past and from limiting social conventions—underscores the extent to which freedom is in fact unavailable in America. As a matter of social construction far beyond the control of any person, American individuals are subject to great limits when it comes to liberation. Tellingly, both these road-trip stories of pretenders both focus on American practices and attitudes about race, suggesting that slavery is the nation’s original lie. And as an original and originating lie, slavery set into motion a culture of deception that metastasized far beyond its original legal boundaries. As a former American slave named Lewis Clarke once put it, “The fact is, slavery’s the father of lies.” Lies are the essence of slavery, and in a system of racial enslavement even people who might otherwise be honest have too much incentive to lie to others and themselves. Slavery turns the entire culture into a culture of deception, and even after the legal framework of slavery is gone, the culture of deception remains. Even long after the formal end of slavery, the legacy of slavery still limited (and limits) freedom in America.

These chapters, and the kinds of works they represent cover a lot of ground, but certainly do not cover all the kinds of American road trip stories that are out there. There are more than a million roads that hatch through the American landscape and countless road trips that could be taken on them.[21]

Part of the appeal of the American road trip may lie in this: that road trips are an American tradition, a practice and ritual that can make one, in partaking, feel like part of a national community. Stories can be swapped with friends and strangers alike of each route taken, sites seen, and souvenirs purchased. And yet each road trip is distinct, made of different directions and characters and events and dreams. All American road trips do not point toward the same Mecca; their ends are far more diffuse. Perhaps, to the extent that American aspirations have always circled around the concomitant desires to belong and to be an individual (which Tocqueville, for his part, saw as the dangerous democratic inclinations to tyranny of the majority and individualism), road trips may be a way that Americans try to satisfy those desires at the same time. They can be read, in some ways, as a practical test of the highest aspirations of democratic individualism.

They move through a strange landscape, those American road trips. They take place in the most fixed and public space of the national territory. And yet that same space is one of liminality, of betweenness, of motion, of transition. In reading the American road trip, one moves through the motion of American public life—motion that, in the end, might be the nation’s most fixed quality. Quests for American dreams often wind up in frustration and futility, but still, to generation after generation of Americans, seem worth getting on the road to chase.



[1]. Richard Wilbur, “On Freedom’s Ground,” in New and Collected Poems (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1988), 48.

[2]. Stephen Dunn, “The Sacred,” in Between Angels (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), 55.

[3]. Matthew Algeo, Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009).

[4]. See Roxanne Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); and “The Comparative Politics of Travel,” Parallax 9 (2003): 18–28. I also explore theoria in greater detail in Traveling Back: Toward a Global Political Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[5]. John Evan Seery, Political Theory for Mortals: Shades of Justice, Images of Death (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 128.

[6]. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1971).

[7]. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: J. & H. G. Langley, 1840), vol. 2, 1.

[8]. See Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition (New York: Vintage, 1948); A.J. Beitzinger, A History of American Political Thought (Eugene: Resource Publications, 1972); Daniel Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.

[9]. See, for instance, Catherine Zuckert, Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990); and the Political Companion to Great American Authors series, published by the University of Kentucky Press. There is also an emerging scholarship in African-American political thought that places literature at the fore. See Alex Zamalin, African-American Political Thought and American Culture (New York: Springer, 2015).

[10]. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America (New York: Viking, 1962).

[11]. These roads were also materially important, as Eric Burns notes, for the development of the political journalism that shaped if not defined the constitutional debates themselves. See Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 26.

[12]. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2014), 46.

[13]. Ibid., 63.

[14]. Ibid., 209.

[15]. Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1955), 9.

[16]. Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers, ed. Erika Wolf, trans. Anne O. Fisher (New York: Cabinet Books, 2007), 5.

[17]. The last National Household Transit Survey reported that the average American driver drives 36 miles a day (U.S. Department of Transportation, “Summary of Travel Trends: 2009 National Household Travel Survey,” FHWA-PL-11-022, 2009).

[18]. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Chiefly About War Matters. By a Peaceable Man,” Atlantic Monthly 10.57 (July, 1862): 43–61.

[19]. Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New York: New Directions, 1945).

[20]. Mindi S. Johnson-Eluwole, Travel: The Well-Known Secret: Travel Stories and Life Lessons (Bloomington: Authorhouse, 2011), 180.

[21]. Jeff Guo, “We Counted Literally Every Road in America. Here’s What We Learned,” The Washington Post (March 6, 2015), 03/06/these-are-the-most-popular-street-names-in-every-state/.


This excerpt is from The American Road Trip and American Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2018) with our book review here.

Susan McWilliamsSusan McWilliams

Susan McWilliams

Susan McWilliams is a Professor of Politics at Pomona College. She is the author of Traveling Back: Toward a Global Political Theory (Oxford, 2014); The American Road Trip and American Political Thought (Lexington, 2018); and a co-editor of several books, most recently The Best Kind of College: An Insiders' Guide to America's Small Liberal Arts Colleges (SUNY, 2015).

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