2008, 326 p.
I haven’t been to America. And I don’t normally read travel books.
That said, Don Watson’s American Journeys strikes me as a rather unusual specimen of the genre. It starts off conventionally enough, with a map of America with snail trails all over it, zigzagging right across the country. It’s only when you embark on the book that you realise that these are indeed, journeyS plural, undertaken just for the pleasure of seeing what’s there, and that the experience of travel- i.e. moving from point A to point B- is just as important as the final destination.
This feeling of disembodiment- moving across- the continent is reinforced further by the blandness of the table of contents- just Chapter 1, Chapter 2 etc. It’s really quite hard to locate favourite sections again in this book- it all just flows past.
Nonetheless, there are some truly memorable chapters- the New Orleans chapter in particular is damned good reportage- and indeed, as I flip through the book, I find good segments throughout that I had enjoyed but passed on over without them really making a strong impression on me. Is this shallowness intentional?
But there’s also a repetition about the book. Again, I can’t work out if this is a weakness, or whether it’s a commentary on the nature of America itself. Fast food strips, the shambolic nature of privatized public transport with Amtrak, the narrow fundamentalism, the puffed-up boasting, the distance…all these themes crop up again and again, right across his journey. But then I think about how few concepts one really takes from a book when the last page is turned, (maybe four at best??) and if leaving with a multi-stranded memory of a book is a sign of success, then this book succeeds admirably.
Most of all, this book gave me a more nuanced understanding of American freedom, although I probably still don’t ‘get’ it. In the past, I have bristled at the smugness and selfishness of George W. Bush’s ‘fridom’ that was so disrespectful of that of other nations. Don Watson explains it much better than I could paraphrase, so I’ll let him do it:
Freedom is such an old chestnut of American rhetoric that it does not impress outsiders as perhaps it should. The more the president speaks of it, the less meaning it registers. When he says ‘Our enemies hate us for our freedoms’ we cringe, even though we know that, down the years, Americans have died in tens of thousands for the cause. In any case, we think, it’s less for the freedoms that they hate you, and more for the influence you exercise. ‘Our enemies hate us for our power, our hegemony’ would be a truer statement, and little would be lost by stating it in these terms.
And yet, when one travels in America, the chestnut sheds at least some of its shell. You come to see that, to Americans, freedom means something that we incurable collectivists do not quite understand; and that they know freedom in ways that we do not. Freedom is the country’s sacred state. Freedom is what must be protected. All over, they will tell you what is wrong with America, but freedom is the one thing they think right. And whatever the insults to my social democratic senses, that is what I find irresistable about the place- the almost guilty, adolescent feeling that in this place a person can do what he wants…
If I am American, I am as free as a person can be. If I am free, I can do- or dream of doing- all the things that it is in my nature to do or to dream; no other place on earth need interest me. So long as I am guaranteed this freedom, I will forgive the things my country does that are not in my nature or my dreams. I will be ‘spared the care of thinking about them’. That is, of course, unless my country or some other place threatens freedom. (. 325)
The blurb on the back of my book quotes Watson saying “Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion”, and he conveys this ambivalence so well.