The World Keeps Turning: Is anyone still ‘searching for America?’


Published: 04-28-2023 2:33 PM

“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping

I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

They’ve all come to look for America

“America.” — Paul Simon, 1968

The idea of “searching for America” began soon after we inspired much of the world by establishing a country based on the loftiest ideals. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville traveled in America and wrote hundreds of pages of observations in 1831. Like many that followed, he wanted to capture the essence of America — its people, geography, institutions, and most importantly its spirit — in a single, coherent vision.

One observation described America as “exceptional” because its resources would allow many to “devote their energies to thought” instead of labor. Soon, politicians twisted our “exceptional” gifts to justify “Manifest Destiny” which allowed America to expand and conquer anyone we chose. After World War II, we became “the world’s policeman” because, theoretically, we were uniquely positioned to support democracy and fight communism.

Poets and writers embraced “American exceptionalism,” too. Walt Whitman celebrated working people in “I Hear America Singing” in 1860. Woody Guthrie sang his opposition when the excesses of capitalism sank the country into the Great Depression and its gears ground the Great Plains into a Dust Bowl. But he maintained belief in the American people, and the bounty and beauty of the land in what I believe should be our national anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” Near the end of his life, Grapes of Wrath (1939) author John Steinbeck described traveling with his dog Charley in a 1962 book subtitled “In Search of America.”

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Author Peter Zheutlin recently emulated Steinbeck’ journey-with-a-dog, and an essay lists other writers who tried to understand our fascinating, troubling country by traveling. I would add 1968’s movie Easy Rider to his list simply because of the American flag painted on the gas tank of Peter Fonda’s chopper.

Zheutlin suggests that “America is far more than a place on the map;” it is an “intangible,” an “ideal, always just beyond our grasp,” and uses a Ronald Reagan quotation to illustrate. Reagan described a letter listing countries where an immigrant could not become a part of the national culture — e.g., you could move to France but you wouldn’t become French. Instead, the letter suggested, “America represents something universal in the human spirit” and that “anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’”

Maybe I’m especially susceptible to this ideal vision of America because I grew up in the Midwest with a heritage of hard-working, interwoven immigrants; or because an uncle rode the rails during the Depression and settled in Steinbeck’s California; or because a brother gave Guthrie’s songs a soulful voice. But I was definitely moved by the utopian society described in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, even as they enshrined slavery as a nearly fatal flaw, one that may still prove deadly.

I embarked on a “Bicentennial Search for America” in 1976, a grandiose title for a young man on a motorcycle with some empty journals. Unlike Easy Rider, I didn’t have a pile of drug money (or any money) to smooth the bumps in the road, but working day-labor (like Whitman’s carpenters, masons and boatmen, or Steinbeck’s Okies) coupled with the kindness of friends and strangers did. Over 18 months, I gained an abiding faith in the goodness of the American people because they regularly crossed a political and cultural divide to help someone whose appearance represented many of their worst fears. They saw, and accepted, the person, not the ideology.

Today, I don’t see the same impulse to “search for America.” I think the creation myth of “American exceptionalism” has run its course, partially destroyed by our contentious and violent racial history, the exposure of many myths of American foreign policy (e.g., conquests of Cuba and the Philippines and attempts in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) and those of some dominant political personalities (JFK, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Trump).

I hope young people can find a larger, global community that rejects war and gun violence, environmental and climate destruction, racism and sexism, and religious and gender discrimination. They may find new, global leaders in Greta Thunberg, the Parkland survivors, and the courageous schoolgirls of Iran. Even if some of the goals are utopian dreams, like our founding documents, the search and effort is what’s important. Like old people before them, younger generations need an “exceptional” dream to reach for.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at