An in-depth analysis of American social mores has proven a popular topic in critical culture lately. Philip Caputo traversed the nation in a pickup hauling an airstream trailer home in search of the heart and soul of the U.S. in his new book The Longest Road. A. A. Gill’s newly published To America with Love breaks down 18 uniquely American characteristics—from sex, guns and skyscrapers to loneliness and the sublime. (Terry Eagleton’s Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America is also recently published, but we’re more interested in writers who’ve trekked every last corner of America.) Together Caputo and Gill vibrantly imbue the essence of the United States in the physical and the meta, both the here-and-now and the deep historical backdrop. Drawing on the observations of Caputo’s travels paired with Gill’s cultural meditations, I break down America into five (of very many more) traits.
1. The Lands Are Lonesome
Caputo writes, “…the Nebraska Sandhills, one of the lonesomest regions in the country. An expanse of virgin mixed-grass prairie and cactus-specked dunes more than two-thirds the size of Maine, with fewer people than you’d find on a single block in New York City…”
“The great interior of America, “ Gill explains, “still feels like it’s on probation. It has not conquered the wilderness, rather come to an uneasy truce….Communities are auditioning for the land that they squat on.”
The letters and diaries of the first women in the Midwest describe a rugged unforgiving land, “the creaking wind, the whispering emptiness, the unending toil,” Gill reports.
“The great gape of loneliness was a defining, solitary character of America,” he writes. “Overcoming it, taming and finally imbuing the emptiness of the New World with Godliness was a philosophical triumph.”
2. America: Plentiful Food Has Its Price
Gill writes, “…American portions—the gargantuan steaks, the jaw-disengaging thickness and leaking fecundity of sandwiches. The necropolises of wings and legs, breasts and buttocks, the relentless, tyrannical labyrinth of choice…”
While in the Great Plains, Caputo discovers “the family farm, the much-revered but largely fictitious institution, isn’t efficient; the mega farm is….’Get big or get out’ has been the catchphrase on the Great Plains for years, and most small farmers have gotten out.”
The average farmer has “been replaced by agribusiness giants owning immense acreages, spraying with chemicals and plowed fence line to fence line by GPS-guided tractors.” The region now, Caputo reports, is emptier than in 1920, with thousands of miles of land with less than six people per square mile.
3. Americans Talk Funny
Caputo describes Lebanon, Nebraska’s mayor and his wife who live across from the town’s only remaining gas station. “He lives there with his wife Joan—pronounced Jo-anne.”
Gill analyzes the America way of speech. “And so there emerged a tradition of straight talking with elegant phrasing, with humor and hyperbole and it developed an accent almost immediately. People comment on the American style of talking, typically with the stress on vowels above consonants.”
“You’re more likely to sound like a friend than a public information announcement.” Gill writes. “It is a voice that has grown out of debate, out of long seasons with little company and no more entertainment than the sound of voices.”
4. America Is and Always Was a Nation of Foreigners
In line at a post office in Grand Island, South Dakota, a man depicted as the “Tattoo-man” complains to Caputo of “too goddamn many Mexicans in this town. I remember when there was one black family and one Mexican family in Grand Island. Now we got a million of ‘em, and Somalis and Sudanese comin’ in.”
America was founded “to be the ‘other place,’ the alternative to a hopelessly compromised, worn-out world,” Gill writes.
Historically, “the largest self-identified national group in America are Germans” with 58 million people claiming such heritage, according to Gill.
Caputo writes sarcastically making a point against anti-immigration: “Keep out, you huddled masses yearning to make our motel beds, butcher our hogs, build our house, harvest our crops, landscape our lawns.”
“Now we’ve transformed the Mexican border into a semblance of an East European frontier during the Cold War,” he adds.
5. The Sublime: Nature’s Commanding, Unforgiving Voice
Caputo recalls a previous fishing trip with his son on the Jim River in Alaska. His son’s boat capsizes, thrusting him into the frigid water before Caputo barely rescues him in time; hypothermia has already set it.
“If my son dies, nothing here will change, nothing here will acknowledge what to me and his mother will be an unbearable loss,” he writes. “The forests’ calm will not be disturbed; the eagle will fly to its nest as if nothing happened.”
“The sublime,” Gill writes, “is to give yourself over to chaos. It isn’t simply a response, it’s stepping through, to recognize a connection with elemental forces.”
“This new world is a catalogue of superlatives and extremes….No country is as constantly, as physically insistent as America. You are ever pressed up against the landscape, dumbfounded, terrified,” Gill writes.
“Never before and never since has the otherness of nature, its complete indifference to human fate, been so impressed on me,” Caputo explains about his son’s near-death experience.
Ian Floyd is a journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin and the summer features intern at Kirkus Reviews. Follow him on Twitter.
Above, left: Philip Caputo photographed by Walter Andrew.
Above, right: Photograph of A. A. Gill courtesy of the author.