[(essay date 1984) In the following essay, Butler remarks on the role of movement and travel in U.S.A. and in American literature in general, positing a “search for pure motion” as part of the national character. In Butler’s appraisal, Dos Passos’s trilogy infuses this search with “epic significance,” illustrating on a grand scale its positive and negative consequences.]
There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Emerson’s Circles
One of the most distinctive drives in American culture is a quest for pure motion, movement which is not directed toward any particular end point. A relatively new and chronically rootless society, America has always placed an unusually high premium on mobility rather than stability. As John Steinbeck observed in his own travels, a central impulse in most Americans is a reflexive urge simply to keep moving:
I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over again in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke about how they wanted to go somewhere, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.1(Italics added)
It is not surprising, therefore, to find American literature densely populated with heroes and heroines who try “to find in motion what was lost in space”2—restless people in search of settings which are expansive enough to accommodate their passion for radical independence and open possibilities. Indeed, one might validly distinguish American literature from that of other Western countries in terms of this search for pure motion. Whereas journey books from English and Continental traditions direct movement toward a definite place, a coherent set of tested values, and a secure niche in a stable society, movement in American literature is often aggressively non-teleological. Odysseus travels consciously and instinctively homeward toward a wife and a spot in a hierarchical society, but Rip Van Winkle ambles off to the woods so that he can avoid both. Don Quixote leaves his kingdom and Dulcinea always to return, but Huck Finn lights out to the territories and never looks back. Candide’s journey reaches its conclusion in a particular location which will give him community, sustenance, and identity, but Thoreau leaves his “garden” after a mere two years because he wants to avoid any “particular route” or “beaten track”3 in life. Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Oliver Twist, and even Robinson Crusoe see their journeys as necessary evil, a way of working out their identities in a place-oriented world, but Jack Kerouac longs simply to be on the road itself, knowing full well that his destination probably will be a disappointment. Like Walt Whitman, he tramps “a perpetual journey”4 which views motion itself as intrinsically valuable. At the end of Heart of Darkness, Marlowe will settle for the illusion of civilization and will...