IN THE EARLY 1930s, my Idahoan great-grandfather, who worked for the railroads, got so drunk that he drove his jalopy into the Snake River and drowned. He and my great-grandmother had six children. His death in the early years of the Depression was a calamity. My great-grandmother faced such difficult circumstances that she was forced to abandon her ancestral home and head out west with my young grandfather to California, where she worked as a maid (her first job ever) and fed my grandfather from the discount canned food bin (so discounted because the labels had slipped off, so you never knew what dinner was until right when you opened it). Somehow she managed to see her youngest son climb into the lower middle class in the good postwar economy. But life in the United States, like everywhere else, can be disappointing. When my grandfather died in the 1980s, he left behind $700 and the paintings he made of the California desert, which he loved, which he called God’s Country. He didn’t see much of God’s Country. He lived in a cheap apartment complex in Orange County, surrounded by flat tract houses, many of which had RVs parked out front.
So far as I know, my grandfather never romanticized his journey west; he’d had a difficult childhood and didn’t like to talk about the home he’d left, or the leaving of it. I must have plenty of Idaho kin, but I’ve never met any of them. So far as I can tell, his silence on the subject was precisely what led his daughter, my mother, to speak of his journey so constantly, repeating its imagined details to her children, many of them I suspect drawn from her favorite book, The Grapes of Wrath. She talked my father into buying a series of motorhomes for a trip to Idaho, much discussed but never executed. Undriven, the enormous boxy vehicles depreciated in our suburban driveway, serving no clear purpose. We were proud Californians, with no family left in Idaho. The road was somehow supposed to draw us back to our ancestors. Maybe that ugly RV suggested dissatisfaction with what they had given us, a mortgaged middle-class existence in the Golden State, a week’s freedom from work every year. For my mother the road had romance. There is no evidence it did for my grandfather.
As a historian of the United States, I’m impressed by how much we Americans romanticize the open road. Perhaps that fantasy subconsciously drew me to study the 19th century, an age of astonishing external and internal migration: itinerant peddlers, California-bound wagon trains, footloose emancipated slaves, Native Americans refusing the fiction of the white man’s maps. Most fantasies are strengthened in proportion to their distance from reality. As a suburban child who rarely went anywhere, I read Twain and Melville and Kerouac with a sense of wonder and longing, the same I felt in the mall cineplex watching Thelma & Louise and a dozen other road trip movies. In those pre-mobile days, no one I knew hitchhiked or sped into the wild yonder without telling someone first where they were going.
Danger, tragedy, and the possibility of freedom have ever been the allure of nomadic life in the American imagination. Yet part of me wonders how much of that allure actually remains in 2018. We’re no longer much interested in the tragic or macabre endings of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, let alone the ecstatic, amphetamine-fueled celebration of freedom of On the Road. Almost imperceptibly, the road trip genre itself has decayed, the road demoted these last decades from an object of desire into mere plot complication.
Our wanderers rarely set out, as they once did, without the comfort of a fixed destination. In the most common instances of the genre (e.g., Transamerica, The Guilt Trip, Little Miss Sunshine), a couple of estranged family members, friends, or even colleagues must reconcile with one another while contending with eccentric minor characters, vehicular breakdowns, and brushes with law enforcement and Hell’s Angels. And so there’s an important difference between these films and their 1960s and 1970s predecessors: the latter contemplated what it meant to live and die on the road, while the contemporary road film treats the American highway as the scenic route to a more settled existence. More recent films have treated the fantasy of the road as abject. Up in the Air pathologized its consultant character’s obsession with travel as a symptom of his intimacy issues. And more than one critic has rightly noticed how few women survive Hollywood’s road trips, which have never even infrequently included people of color.
In any case, now that we have the internet and cheap international airfare, who wants to meet strangers in Trump’s United States? Even my mother gave up her unused RVs; today, she’d rather watch House Hunters International than leave the house.
Thanks to Hollywood, Detroit, and policies such as the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the postwar American dream got paved, literally and metaphorically. And as the memory of those economic boom years fades, it has increasingly become a privilege to imagine that there is freedom in mobility.
But how should we think of that “privilege” when it is the last thing many Americans own? This for me is the hardest question posed by Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, a revelatory nonfiction investigation of broke Americans living their post-recession lives on the road, mobility their sole possession. The book is a portrait of both the economic decline of the United States and the cultural fantasy that makes such decline tolerable, even ennobling.
A Columbia University journalism professor, Bruder spent three summers traveling across the western United States, living with a small but growing subculture of Americans who now live permanently out of their cars, vans, and RVs. Few of these modern nomads have any substantial savings or fixed residence. Instead, they scrape by, traveling between temporary and seasonal jobs, working as campsite hosts in California, harvesting sugar beets in the Dakotas, fulfilling Amazon orders at remote fulfillment centers in Arizona. They got here thanks to the greased slope of our unequal economic recovery, their downward slide greased by medical bills, bad divorces, and a generalized neoliberal precarity. Like the homeless population that has multiplied for decades on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and other American cities, a surprising number were at one time middle class, even well off — but no longer.
Last month, the city of Los Angeles, the automobile fantasy incarnate, intensified its campaign against people living in cars. Our civilization is even less comfortable with the unconventionally domiciled than with the truly homeless, so it is little wonder that the former are even more invisible than the latter. Unlike the homeless and the conventionally domiciled, the nomads go uncounted in the census, occupying a landscape that our cultural imagination has largely surrendered. The last memorable representation of their class was Chris Farley’s old Saturday Night Live motivational speaker character Matt Foley, who warned his high school audiences not to end up like him, living in a van down by the river. When we think of seasonal laborers in the United States, we almost always imagine migrants from Mexico and Central America. Bruder’s nomads are almost entirely white and middle-aged. Few other journalists have taken note.
Unlike Foley, Bruder’s subjects take a proud and defiant view of themselves as individuals and as a class. In their own eyes they are not homeless, but “houseless”; not helpless victims, but self-reliant “workampers.” Like actual nomads, they stay connected on the internet and at annual camp meetups, maintaining friendships, exchanging valuable information on the best places to find work or avoid law enforcement, and lending each other moral support. All the while, they are clear-eyed about their future: many if not most realize that they will never enjoy a secure and stable retirement. They will end up in public institutions, die on the job, or, as some candidly declare, commit suicide somewhere out in the desert.
In the near view, the nomads represent a new and unprecedented phenomenon: the disintegration of the American dream for its traditional beneficiary, the white middle class. Many nomads are determined, however, to see themselves as part of a longer story. As one 69-year-old bankrupt former software executive, “Don,” explains, the nomads are nothing new:
You may think that workamping is a modern phenomenon, but we come from a long, long tradition. We followed the Roman legions, sharpening swords and repairing armor. We roamed the new cities of America, fixing clocks and machines, repairing cookware, building stone walls for a penny a foot and all the hard cider we could drink. We followed the emigration west in our wagons with our tools and skills, sharpening knives, fixing anything that was broken, helping clear the land, roof the cabin, plow the fields and bring in the harvest for a meal and pocket money, then moving on to the next job. Our forebears are the tinkers.
Don may see his ancestors as the settler-colonialists of the mid-19th century, but his truer forebears may be the American hobos who hit the road in search of work at the end of the century, just as historians declared the frontier closed. As documented in the works of Bruder’s own literary ancestor, Jack London, the working-class victims of the Panic of 1893 encountered the same dirty looks, vagrancy laws, and union-busting bosses as Don and his companions do today. Like Don, the hobos preferred to think of themselves as pioneers of a “new” land rather than unwanted surplus labor, or harbingers of a Mad Max–style apocalypse. Can you blame them?
London and Steinbeck were socialists, something no one told me when I read their books as a child. Without disavowing the hard realities of poverty and American capitalism, neither writer could deny that there was something romantic about the freedom and courage that desperation brings. When some freedoms are taken away — the freedom to make a permanent home and earn a decent living — those that remain loom all the larger. They must, in order for us to survive. Is that something to celebrate? I can’t decide. But Bruder’s subjects are another disheartening testament to how the United States shrugs off its more vulnerable citizens. For all its dreams of travel, the nation just can’t seem to imagine that a better destination exists.
Justin Tyler Clark is assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His forthcoming book is City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).