Do we keep searching for the unsearchable? WWFD (what would forefathers do)?
Everyone desperately wants to pinpoint America and the American identity. They can all give you a little description of what they think America is, and what the true American looks like. That’s not enough though--they want proof. They want to be able to pick up a distinct smell like a bloodhound, and “AHA! That’s America!” But, my friends, that will never happen.
The America we know today is not the “true” America, so we need to get over the notion of authenticity within our national identity. The only authentic Americans are the ones we tried to kill out centuries ago. The foundation of our country was escaping oppression by oppressing and killing others. Now that we’ve cleared that up, one more time, I can say that I CAN understand that “quintessential” America everyone’s going after--but does it exist? Is that America only in the highly-edited, abusing-artistic-license narratives of white men on the road? Is that America only in Little House on the Prairie? Or, perhaps, is it some ungraspable feeling you get at the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the little diner in Nowhere, Indiana? Is that feeling one of American-ness? Or, is that just a general “wow”? Does America have a spirit unlike that of anywhere else?
In 2008, Time wrote an piece on “50 Authentic American Experiences.” It was emphasized how these were local spots, legit, authentic, and off the beaten path. Is the real America on the backroad? Is the real America taking a left when the map says to go right? Maybe. I might be onto something here. No one wants to be a tourist. Everyone is all about going somewhere and exclaiming later, “IT WAS ALL LOCALS!” The small town folk hold some wisdom the road-bound traveler does not. Or, so we think. This home-grown American experience, with multi-generational households, and little kids running around buying a cookie at the local diner is what we all want to see. But, only see. We just want proof that it exists, and then we’re on our jolly way.
Steinbeck ends on an unexpected note (for me): an extremely interesting one. He picks up a black student who was hitchhiking, a young man keen on learning and resisting. If you asked me, resistance is the soul of America. The abject population of America, the people who silently made history, they are the soul of this country. When we go out looking for the core of this nation, I think we’re trying too hard to avoid the normative or what we consider to be "blah, boring" at first sight; we’re looking for the content unicorn, white picket fence, nuclear family. That’s where we go wrong. You don’t need to drive across the country to find the soul you’re looking for. It’s all around. It’s the people fighting and resisting every day of their lives. Isn’t that supposedly what America was founded on? Resistance--picking up and starting anew.
That’s why I find the differing narratives of restlessness so interesting. I think I touched on this in one of my first blogs this semester, but I would love to look further into how ethnicity and race come into this desperate need to always be on the move. I am from a family of immigrants. My great-grandfather was exiled to Sibera for 10 years, somehow making it out alive. My grandmother escaped genocide, and then fled the communist country she’d landed in from her first escape. None of them knew a word of English when they arrived in America with that “American dream” deeply embedded into their minds.
You’re never going hear any of them talking about trying to find that authentic, rooted America. I’d argue you’ll never find any first generation immigrant arguing that. Immigrants know what their roots are, they know what America is, and they come here to stay, to settle. If they have the means to travel, they absolutely will. It’s a joy to consentingly travel freely, for leisure, learn about new cultures, and immerse yourself in somewhere you’ve never known--but searching for the answer to some vague “America-question”? Never. I guess it’s because they never asked that question to begin with. America, for them, was a matter of not being killed. America for the likes of Steinbeck, who has never known any different, is something that needs discovering. Maybe. I don’t know.