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“Any child of ten can tell you that getting-up-and-going is topic number one in the record of man’s endeavors. Take that big red book that Billy is always lugging around. It’s got twenty-six stories in it that have come down through the ages and almost every one of them is about some man going somewhere. Napoleon heading off on his conquests, or King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail. Some of the men in the book are figures from history and some from fancy, but whether real or imagined, almost every one of them is on his way to someplace different from where he started.” — Sally in “The Lincoln Highway,” by Amor Towles (page 481).
As Sally points out, since the earliest days, getting-up-and-going has been topic number one in the record of human endeavors. It also has had a very central place in the history of American storytelling. If, after finishing “The Lincoln Highway,” you want to immerse yourself in another American journey narrative, here are a few suggestions.
Certainly, one of the greatest journeys in American literature is the one that Ishmael takes with Captain Ahab in pursuit of the great white whale. It is also one of the greatest journeys that I have taken as a reader. For in “Moby Dick,” Melville shows both a head-spinning mastery of the English language and a relentless inventiveness of form.
The Library of America is the nonprofit that publishes America’s greatest writing in authoritative editions. The attraction of this particular edition is that it includes “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Life on the Mississippi” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” all in a single binding. If you read either Sawyer or Finn in high school, I am happy to report that you can consider them unread. Having revisited both in recent years in middle age, I found they surprised and delighted in ways that my younger self simply did not appreciate.
In retrospect, I think “The Lincoln Highway” owes its biggest debt of gratitude to this work of Faulkner’s. Told from multiple points of view, “As I Lay Dying” follows a group of siblings, mostly in young adulthood, as they deliver the coffin bearing their mother to her family burial ground over the course of a nine-day journey. For those who have never read Faulkner, I think “As I Lay Dying” is a great place to start.
Like “Moby Dick,” Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a truly American epic. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Joad family sets out from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma for the Edenic promise of an imagined California. Traveling along the relatively new Route 66, theirs is a journey with ample challenges and opportunities for self-discovery.
Subtitled “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” this work of nonfiction tells the story of the millions of African Americans who, in the midst of the Jim Crow era, moved from the Deep South to Chicago and other northern cities in pursuit of better lives — thus changing the cultural composition of America in the process. Wilkerson brings the details of this mass exodus to life by focusing on the histories of a few individuals who made the journey.
My wife, Maggie, turned me on to this wonderful novel, which takes the American journey skyward. In my wife’s words: “It’s an incredibly uplifting story of an early female aviator who broke all the rules and boundaries that had been placed upon her in order to follow her dreams and ambitions.”
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