America is an idea in our minds.
— Andrei Codrescu
“THAT SINGULAR COUNTRY where people are moved only by three ideas: money, liberty, and God.” This is how Stendhal described, in 1830, the United States, a country he never got to visit but whose political originality intrigued him. The United States was only an idea in his mind, but its democratic culture and mores worried him a great deal. Stendhal was not the only one interested in the New World. His compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville, too, saw in the United States “more than America”; he detected there “the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, character, prejudices, and passions.”
In the 20th century, America acquired an unrivaled political and economic supremacy, which gave it a symbolic status in the world. The end of the Cold War promised to bolster its image as a defender of freedom and democracy in a new global context. Only three decades later, the United States has again become a source of political controversies. Some question the vitality of its institutions and culture, while others point to worrying signs of decline as manifested in its hyperpolarization and political gridlock. Still others are troubled by its militaristic and imperialist tendencies.
Which of these faces of the United States is the real one? Is it “the land of the free,” which inspired Antonín Dvořák, whose ninth symphony, From the New World, is a magnificent ode to America’s diverse soul? The arrogant imperial power mired in endless wars? The country dominated by profit-driven corporations and ruled by economic winners, indifferent to “sacrificial zones” and “internal colonies”?
As Johan Huizinga remarked a century ago, we still “know much too little about America,” and often rely on myths and preconceptions about the country’s principles and values as well as about its culture and institutions. Foreign travelers, fascinated by the skyscrapers of New York and the glamour of Hollywood, often end up visiting only the two coasts. Even many Americans still know too little about “the real America,” the country of small towns and endless land that lies in between.
Tom Zoellner (full disclosure: the politics editor at LARB) has learned to see the United States in all its bewildering diversity. As he walks the Santa Fe Trail, in the middle of Kansas, he wonders: “How [is] it possible […] that all of this American land — in every direction — could be fastened together into a whole?” How is it possible that “a four-page rulebook and a set of disputed principles” can keep together hundreds of millions of flawed human beings? What are the “enduring features” that define us as Americans?
The observations from Zoellner’s many journeys through the United States over the past 30 years have now been collected in The National Road. The book offers vignettes of “the real America,” a country of paradoxes that is simultaneously great and unstable, spectacular and uniform, defying all attempts to define it in one sentence. Zoellner is a restless spirit with a special gift for speaking to strangers, a skill honed during his 10-year stint as a newspaper reporter. He seeks to pack as much Americana into the book as possible and tends to experience the country in an almost “sensual and tactile way.” He loves driving — “There is a quality nearly erotic about a smooth weaving through poky lanes of interstate,” he admits — and has a keen eye for local geography.
By his own counting, Zoellner has crossed the country, coast to coast, at least 30 times, looking for historic markers and often finding unexpected beauty in the ordinary. “I want to see certain American spots again and again,” he confesses, “as many times as I can. There is such unexpected beauty in the visual bric-a-brac of the roadside.” For him, the car is the quintessential symbol of American freedom and the cornerstone of the American Dream. Zoellner stubbornly refuses to use GPS in places he visited before, seeking his way around unaided by technology. Even in our digital age, his most trusted companion remains the old Rand McNally Road Atlas, with its detailed maps and small print.
The United States, Zoellner believes, is best seen and understood not so much through the skyline of Manhattan, the canyons of Utah or Arizona, the Washington Mall, or the Golden Gate Bridge. It “may be seen in its best form among less celebrated vistas — the geographies we don’t stop to notice,” the flyover land that foreign visitors often ignore or look at with disdain. This is the America of courthouses and police stations where nothing spectacular seems to happen. It is also the country of family farms and small towns with their struggling local newspapers, classic diners, and vanishing industries. In those places, coffee does not come in sophisticated flavors, the only available beer is Budweiser, and the wi-fi is scarce. There people live paycheck to paycheck and rely on Dollar General stores to make ends meet.
Zoellner is also drawn to forlorn towns, wrecked landscapes, and dystopian places. He writes about vanished Nevada mining towns and does not shy away from visiting explosion test sites in the remote Mojave Desert, where no less than 928 atomic weapons were tried during the Cold War. He also indulges in another odd pursuit: driving obscure rural roads, and eating in small-town diners, in search of state highpoints, “fifty individual symbols for the United States in all of its natural beauty, hubris, greed, nobility, and urge to conserve, memorialize, and sanctify.”
The America described in the 14 chapters of The National Road is “a collection of villages” that form a romantic and fragile country, at once parochial and cosmopolitan, reassuring and unsettling, majestic and trivial. In this changing and restless United States, place remains important to those who cherish their roots and embrace religion. Such is the case of the Mormons discussed in the second chapter of the book. While admitting the peculiarities of their religion, Zoellner admires their “particular genius for baptizing the earth […] with a sense of wonderment and holiness that is too easily forgotten.”
The religion practiced by Americans, Zoellner notes, has a distinctly optimistic quality, as illustrated by the democratic faith in the common person and the general belief in progress. At the same time, it is a highly subjective religion that carries with it an almost surreal quality, connected in some ways to the magic of the American frontier. No place illustrates this magic better than Nevada, with its casinos and slot machines that thrive on their “make-believe business” and “faux-spontaneity.” Las Vegas is the place where risk-lovers gather in the hope of beating the system or getting a freebie. They are after the “great exception” that, as Zoellner put it, may very well be “an unconscious metaphor for humanity’s paramount urge to cheat death.”
The United States that the reader encounters in these pages is generally not the country in which the cosmopolitan coastal elites and the economic winners live. It is definitely not the “Blue America,” sprinkled with “Latte Towns” and super ZIP codes, the affluent enclaves described by David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise (2000) or by Charles Murray in Coming Apart (2012). Zoellner’s United States is a labyrinth of many solitudes, a large community kept together by shared beliefs. It is a country of unpredictable social mobility, immigration, and inequalities, some of which account for the survival of deep pockets of racism and discrimination. An entire chapter describes how white residents in the wealthy suburbs of St. Louis created a myriad of legal restrictions and restrictive covenants that ended up erecting “invisible racial fortifications.” The judicial systems in many municipal court systems, Zoellner notes, still “resemble a sales corporation” searching for more profits. Their law enforcement offices often see their constituents less as individuals to be protected and more as potential offenders and therefore sources of additional revenue.
Is, then, the American Dream eroding, as one of Zoellner’s interlocutors from Iowa fears? Have the Americans lost the sense of “we” and become a closed nation, mired in materialism, hedonism, and moral relativism? Is the economic success of the Dollar General method (discussed in a chapter of the book) a symbol of the United States’s economic decline? Are we living today in a “fractured republic” that resembles a campsite of strangers rather than a genuine community of citizens tied together by meaningful bonds?
The National Road offers no definitive answers to these questions. Yet it reminds us that the country that gave the world McDonald’s, the atomic bomb, and the internet is also a “nation with the soul of a church,” in G. K. Chesterton’s often quoted, if misunderstood, words. Americans ground their national identity on shared beliefs with universalist implications. Zoellner shows that individualism fosters not only a deep-seated passion for autonomy and freedom but also a longing for happiness and roots. The United States is both charitable and individualistic, suspicious of central authority and conformist. Americans love speed and eternal youth, stick to their guns, and want to be better and bigger than they actually are. They are also religious, living by faith as much as by reason, and in closely knit communities where money does not always “run everything.”
As I was about to finish reading The National Road, I was reminded of another favorite book, Road Scholar (1993), by my fellow compatriot Andrei Codrescu. A refugee from communist Romania, Codrescu, too, crossed his new country by car, coast to coast, in search of its soul. On his westward journey, Codrescu visited exotic places that most of us will never get to know. He stopped in upstate New York to visit the utopian Bruderhof community, founded by refugees from Germany and dedicated to a strictly communitarian way of life. He visited the stock market in Chicago, which appeared to him like a huge religious revival meeting, where money rules and players ritualistically venerate their egos. Americans, Codrescu mused, “no matter what they do, are animated by hope, not by reason.” On the road, the poet learned how to handle a gun, visited the Santa Fe hippies, played with crystals, and stopped to meet the restless retirees from Sun City, Arizona, a Heavenly Jerusalem bent on keeping the angel of death at bay.
Zoellner’s and Codrescu’s books describe the contradictory impulses of the American spirit, impossible to capture in a single formula. They remind us that America changes, imperceptibly, with every new citizen who settles here. The United States of America is indeed an idea in our minds to which we are called to give a new shape, a site of endless possibilities. At the same time, as Zoellner reminds us, the United States is also a particular land, with a specific geography that has a native force behind it. “The land is an Indian thing,” Allen Ginsberg told Codrescu. It is this magic power that allows the country to reinvent itself. And, as it does so, the United States seeks to remain true to its original idea: belief in freedom, democratic government, and education; disdain for royalty; and commitment to equality of conditions, self-government, and self-betterment.
America, the singular nation that fascinated Stendhal and Tocqueville two centuries ago, continues to intrigue its friends and critics alike. The magic of the frontier may be gone, but the country, despite its dangerous flirt with populism and white nationalism, remains a powerful global symbol in the 21st century. “Money, liberty, and God” still live together, in an uncertain synthesis, in Lincoln’s land. The United States’s distinct strands of thinking, Zoellner believes, “are permanently braided together,” and each generation is called to find new combinations between them. Each of us is invited to rediscover America’s elusive soul.
Aurelian Craiutu is a professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author, most recently, of Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (Penn Press, 2017).