Actors Peter Fonda (front on bike), Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper on the set of his movie Easy Rider. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
“In America, you can be anything you want.” So a French friend of mine said when I asked how America looked to her and her friends in Paris. I was curious about the French attitude toward the U.S. after Bill Clinton left office, then things soured under Bush, then improved under Obama, and took a dive with Trump. She had come to New York City in the late ’90s and earned a doctorate at Columbia. I assumed she was a close observer of the U.S. from an early age.
“What did America mean to you?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said at first.
“Well, what books did you read—Huck Finn, Gatsby . . . ?”
“All we read in school were French books. We didn’t read about the States or talk about them.”
“George Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King?”
“But you must’ve seen movies and shows,” I pressed. “C’mon, what did you think America was about?”
She paused, then came up with the be-anything-you-want answer.
I waited for her to go on, but she was silent. She couldn’t elaborate. No political theory or historical framework, no famous persons or events. She didn’t mark America as a nation where religion won’t leave the public square, which Europeans often say. Instead, to her it was an open society—really open. That was all, not anything specific, not the Revolution, the Rocky Mountains, First Amendment, Frost’s poetry, or jazz, just a plain and simple freedom of choice.
As she thought back to her youth, you could see the contrast sharpen. Americans were free, French kids weren’t. She felt the restraints of family, church, community, and class (her father was a prominent intellectual, her mother a Catholic from an old aristocratic line). Young Americans weren’t restrained at all.
I heard the same thing said years before by a graduate student studying French, a man who’d spent many semesters abroad, when the 1969 film Easy Rider happened to come up in conversation. I regarded that offbeat drama as just one more anti-American sally from a time of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. That’s one reason I liked it. I couldn’t consider those slovenly characters anything but the opposite of Main Street America.
“No, no,” he replied, “those guys were completely American.”
“What?” I said with a start, the image of Fonda and Hopper on the highway as Steppenwolf blared running through my head.
“Yeah, we saw them right off as standard cowboys.”
“But they’re outlaws,” I argued. “They can’t mix with regular people. They grab a couple of prostitutes and get blasted on LSD.” My friend laughed.
“You think Americans are good law-abiding people? You think they stay in one place, salute the flag, go to work in the morning and church on Sunday?”
Although at the time I had never voted Republican and thought Dan Quayle’s “family values” a joke, I wasn’t interested in another cosmopolitan putdown of God-fearing Chamber of Commerce America. I got enough of it at work, where for years I watched colleagues in American Studies gear their enterprise toward a goal that was summarized by a fellow professor who, when I asked what was the core of her heterogeneous field, answered, “Against American Exceptionalism.” Added to that, I regularly included on my syllabi raw depictions of American life such as Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. I was also at work on a narrative history of a nasty riot in Atlanta in 1906 that had a section on the re-founding of the Ku Klux Klan in a garish ceremony atop Stone Mountain in November 1915. I didn’t need outsiders to enlighten me.
Besides, I already knew what European intellectuals and American expatriates thought of the United States. During the ’90s, I spent nearly every summer in France, packing up as soon as the semester ended for a pensione on the Boulevard Raspail or a cottage near the Loire. I came to expect a degree of condescension once people learned where I was from. I didn’t take offense; it was part of the tourist condition. One time, an attractive, boyish young lady sitting at the next table in a café introduced herself, offered me a smoke, then held up her pack of Marlboros. “See,” she said in careful English, turning the box this way and that as she pointed to the angles of red and white one by one. “K-K-K.”
This was different, though. My acquaintance didn’t want to knock our country. His remark about churchgoing was provocative, but he knew that most Americans live law-abiding, God-believing lives. When he referred to “Americans,” he meant Americans in the ideal, what used to be called the “National Character.” He was a literature person like me, and we think in symbolic terms, not concrete data. I picked up his archetypal angle instantly. To him, the heroes in Easy Rider were mythic figures, not ordinary individuals, and this was his point: Those easy riders possessed an authentic Americanism I had overlooked.
My friend liked to toss flamboyant pronouncements, then smile and pass on, but this one stuck. I kept thinking about it. I taught American literature every year and had a bundle of themes I used to tie together works from the Colonial Period to the mid-20th century. I assigned definitive statements such as the section in Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer entitled “What Is an American?”; Leaves of Grass, which says in its preface, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem”; Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Autobiography” (“I am an American. / I was an American boy. / I read the American Boy Magazine / and became a boy scout / in the suburbs.”). A fresh thesis about what constitutes “American-ness” was always worth entertaining.
I viewed Easy Rider again and the pieces started to fall into place. Wyatt and Billy as American idols . . . bikes on the highway as an American pilgrimage . . . jail and expulsion as rugged individualism meeting a stuffy society . . . The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Billy and Wyatt do the deal in Los Angeles, hop on their bikes, hit the road, and travel the West. What could be more American than that?
They shun middle-class existence and domesticity, to be sure, and so do Natty Bumppo, Thoreau, Ishmael and Ahab, Whitman, Huck, Bohemians in Greenwich Village in the 1920s, the Beats, and the Invisible Man.
They have no lineage and no roots, nothing to tie them to place or country, and neither do Bartleby, aptly named Christopher Newman (hero of Henry James’s The American), Shane, Gatsby, Thomas Sutpen, and dozens of orphans and runaways in the corpus.
If they drift into crime, well, so do Hester Prynne, young Ben Franklin, the signers of the Declaration of Independence on the day of signing, John Greenleaf Whittier’s Barbara Frietchie, Clyde Griffiths (whose fate is, Dreiser says, an American tragedy), Montag in Fahrenheit 451, the free spirits in “Howl” who “crashed through their minds in jail,” Norman Mailer at the Pentagon protest recounted in Armies of the Night, and Thelma and Louise, another pair on an American road trip.
It was almost funny: Easy Rider as traditional. It gave me something novel to say to undergraduates unfamiliar with the Sixties and faithful to a work ethic that carried them to this wealthy university.
Did it make Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on the bus careening across America traditional, too, as Tom Wolfe wrote it up in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? What about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?
Those flights couldn’t be more contrary to conceptions of America put forward by the patriotic authorities. Here, for instance, is how the Heritage Foundation defined Americanism in 2010, in its report “Why Is America Exceptional?” After noting that “The American people are among the most hard-working, church-going, affluent, and generous in the world,” it says:
America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of particular principles about man, liberty, and constitutional government.
The American Revolution drew on old ideas. The United States is the product of Western civilization, shaped by Judeo-Christian culture and the political liberties inherited from Great Britain.
A quotation from Chesterton follows—“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed”—which Heritage ties to the Declaration. Principles, ideas, civilization . . . it sounds as if America happened in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, certainly not in the scheming of Billy and Wyatt, Dr. Gonzo, and Neal Cassady.
How settled and rational all of that sounds, and how inadequate to so many burning moments of assertion scattered across American literature, history, and art. Not that it’s wrong, just a little staid.
A heritage is more than a descent of beliefs. “I think there is no country in the civilized world where they are less occupied with philosophy than the United States,” de Tocqueville observed during his historic tour. He also said, “Americans have not needed to draw their philosophic method from books; they have found it in themselves.” In the section “Intellectual Movement in the United States,” he didn’t examine the content of their thoughts or their primary influences. Instead, he detailed their “habits of mind,” their tastes, interests, “democratic instincts” and “common opinion”—in sum, the disposition of those singular individuals realizing the principles the Heritage Foundation underscores.
So did Crevecoeur in the Letters, which the Founders loved. George Washington rated it with Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as the best descriptions of life in the New World. It painted a sympathetic picture of the character of the citizens, their “national genius” (Crevecoeur’s term), and that’s exactly what the budding nation needed.
At one point, Crevecoeur explains how religions are able to cohabit in a particular community. We have a Catholic here, a Lutheran there, he says, a “seceder” and a Low Dutchman, too, and they all get along. The Catholic believes in transubstantiation, but while in Europe they fight over such things, in America “his prayers offend nobody.” The Lutheran, on the other hand, affirms consubstantiation, but “by doing so he scandalizes nobody.” The “seceder” has a “hot and fiery” faith, Crevecoeur admits, but not enough followers to threaten his neighbors. The Low Dutchman has a “coarse idea” of church but he happily joins this “strange religious medley” without disrupting his neighbors, living a neat and sober life on earth and letting God decide who is right in the next life.
This happy coexistence thrives not because they read James Madison on religious toleration. It’s because they have thick skins: I don’t bother you and you don’t bother me.
* * *
When I read history-of-ideas descriptions of the American advent such as the Heritage document, I imagine memorable persons in play. It’s a professional habit. A literature teacher is inclined to reckon this characterological side more than is a political thinker or a policymaker. He tends to see the creed and not the personality, the First Amendment and not the temperament that will go to jail for it.
To the theorist, America is a doctrine, not a drama. It is a nation of laws, not one of images and actions. He tracks conceptual terms, not metaphor and melody. He doesn’t rank Walden and O Pioneers! anywhere close to the Civil Rights Act. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is more relevant than Hemingway and John Dos Passos joining the ambulance corps in World War I.
Americans in the mid-19th century loved Italian opera and Shakespeare, even in the untamed reaches of the West, as you can see in the episode of the thespian’s stay in town in John Ford’s 1946 film My Darling Clementine, but those storylines don’t fill out the American Idea, not to the political scientist. The New Deal of FDR and the tax cuts of President Reagan he will debate with fervor, but Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront telling his brother in the back of the car, “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum,” words that have become a classic statement of dignity for the down-and-out—those words may reach our political analyst as touching theater, but not anything to incorporate into a national understanding.
At the National Conservative Conference in Washington, D.C., in 2019, intelligent minds expounded a vision of America that broke from the free-market fundamentalism of the libertarian right, the global zeal of the neoconservative right, and the statist control of the social-democratic left. It was a sincere effort to forge 21st-century conservatism for the middle and working classes. But in my two days of attendance, apart from a reference to Whitman in an opening speech, I didn’t catch a single remark about a novel, poem, play, film, song, or painting.
There is a reason for that. When you draw the creed out of abstraction, add the human factor, and mix them in a local habitation, things get a little messy. The grounds of American-ness grow less distinct, the ideals less firm. Democratic propositions fall into the hands of persons of will and self-interest, which complicates the history. It doesn’t discredit those individuals or the beliefs, but it does grant the heritage a human reality whose grimier ingredients make it more appealing to me, not less.
A survey of American history, literature, and art shows that some of the prototypical figures in our past don’t always observe the best parts of the American Idea. The characters that espouse the creed aren’t as worthy as the creed alone. The self that acts out the propositions is not so clean and high-minded. “Give me liberty or give me death!” is as much an expression of Patrick Henry’s intractability as it is of Lockean self-government. When Thoreau heads to the woods on July 4, 1845, the chosen date is as much an outburst of “Leave me alone!” as it is a private repetition of “All men are created equal.”
This is the complication. Too many exceptional figures in the American grain are too headstrong and disruptive for the orderly wisdom of the Constitution. The self they project has too much of the daimonic to suit the “decent respect,” “prudence,” and “patient sufferance” mentioned in the Declaration.
Even so judicious a personage as Booker T. Washington strays into perilous defiance. There is the Washington who counseled blacks to be patient, move slowly, and build up some capital before pushing for equality, an accommodationist approach that dismayed militant blacks such as W.E.B. Du Bois.
But there is another Washington who in 1902 supported Du Bois’s lawsuit against the Southern Railway after he was refused a sleeping car berth because of his color. Washington advised him at each step and promised that when the bills came, Washington would “bear a portion of it provided I can hand it to you personally and not have any connection with your committee.” He urged Bookerites in Virginia and Tennessee to initiate similar lawsuits, and he prodded Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son and head of the Pullman Company, to end segregation in the cars.
He did it privately, but I don’t take Washington’s secrecy as cowardice. If word got out that he was litigating against “White Only” rules, his reputation would fall, and so would his influence in the Republican Party (which brought federal jobs to many hundreds of blacks), along with donations to Tuskegee Institute. These were grave risks he didn’t have to take. I include them in my presentations to let audiences know that Washington had a reckless side that puts his public circumspection in a more tactical light. There is a reason that Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots (inspiration for Birth of a Nation), considered Washington a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a threat to white supremacy in the South.
His covert actions add a daring element to the cautious race policies he voiced in public. It makes him less conciliatory and more interesting, and it makes the ideas of equality more dynamic and real—and a little impure in their realization.
With facts such as those in hand, the heritage becomes less abstract and more human. The ideas are universal and static; the American people are individualistic, a little ornery, the strong ones making ideas their own and living them as instinct. It is entirely typical for one of our greatest philosophers to say, “The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments,” as William James did in a 1906 lecture that became the first chapter of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.
Emerson boasted, “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.” Generations of readers bore him out, including William James’s father, a friend of Emerson’s who said once that he didn’t think much of his friend’s ideas but that “it was utterly impossible to listen to Mr. Emerson’s lectures, without being perpetually haunted as to your intellect by the subtlest and most searching aroma of personality.”
Yes, personality over ideas, temperament over philosophy, the temperament itself spirited and obstinate: it’s a recurrent theme.
In the train of national types found in a U.S. history class or American literature survey, the high meaning of ideals settles into an insistent will again and again. The words of freedom are made flesh in the vehement person of “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs” (“Song of Myself”); or Emily Dickinson admitting, “I never hear the word ‘escape’ / Without a quicker blood” (#77); or Grant at Appomattox in the dirty uniform of a private but with a general’s straps, “rough garb,” he calls it in Personal Memoirs; or Charles Foster Kane in another very American story, caught in an affair, telling his wife and political rival, “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do, and that’s me.”
Here is a sharper example. Everyone loves Huck Finn, including Disneyland and the New York Times, which devoted many columns over several days to Twain after he died in 1910 and went so far as to track down the boyhood friend who was the model for the character and ask him for remembrances of the author. One would expect Huck, a quintessential American figure, to embody those “particular principles” and “old ideas” mentioned above, if in a mischievous way.
How, though, does this summation of him by T. S. Eliot tally the Judeo-Christian, Western-Civilization conception of the country? “Huck is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction,” Eliot says. Tom Sawyer will recover, grow up and marry, and become a successful lawyer or whatever suits his tactical wit. Jim will join his family. What about Huck?
For Huckleberry Finn, neither a tragic nor a happy ending would be suitable. No worldly success or social satisfaction, no domestic consummation would be worthy of him; a tragic end also would reduce him to the level of those whom we pity. Huck Finn must come from nowhere and be bound for nowhere. His is not the independence of the typical or symbolic “American Pioneer,” but the independence of the vagabond. His existence questions the values of America as much as the values of Europe. . . . He belongs neither to the Sunday School nor to the Reformatory. He has no beginning and no end. Hence, he can only disappear.
I read that description of Huck years ago when I was starting to teach. It hit me as awfully desolate, killing the humor in the book, such as when the drunken Boggs riding wildly through town with gun drawn spots Huck, leans over, and mutters, “Whar’d you come f’m, boy? You prepared to die?” The onlookers laugh and assure Huck he’s “the best-naturedest old fool in Arkansas.”
The humor doesn’t last long. What follows is ghastly: Boggs is shot down in the street right in front of his 16-year-old daughter. His killer had given Boggs until 1:00pm to shut up, after Boggs in the midst of his rowdiness had called the man a cheat. The man drops his pistol as the townspeople carry the victim inside.
Huck sticks around; he doesn’t run in horror. We are so eager to find out what will happen that we forget the curious kid seemingly unfazed by the bloodshed. He races forward to get “a good place at the window” and witness Boggs expire. Twain details the bullet hole, the convulsing chest, the screaming girl, “and after that he laid still; he was dead.”
All of this runs through Huck’s eyes—that’s what Eliot’s remarks made me keep in mind. Huck’s response to the horror is as withheld as the conception of Huck-as-Stranger demands. He doesn’t judge; he doesn’t interpret. Not a single moral response passes his lips. He doesn’t even describe his own feelings. He only observes.
I have taught the novel many times over the years, and I know that I have never made my students realize how lonesome and ill-adapted Huck is. I haven’t realized it myself. He’s too distant. It’s not just that my 21st-century classroom with computers along the walls and cell phones in every backpack prevents us from bridging 150 years of drastic change, or that our collective education—their AP classes and majors, my doctorate and tenure—disables any identification with this illiterate runaway.
It’s that you can’t attach anything to him. Huck doesn’t have a philosophy or a religion or a politics. He’s all feeling and tendency.
He doesn’t reason himself into separation; he just doesn’t like to draw attention or get involved. No Rousseau-like objections to being socialized, merely discomfort with new shoes and clean clothes and cropped hair. He prefers a drunken father who beats him to a school that “learns” him. Nothing more than an impulse to get away impels his famous final intent: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” There it is, nothing more to it than that: I can’t stand it.
* * *
I like these unruly types. They’re good for America. They add iconoclastic pep to the body politic; their restive instincts have redeeming value. They go their own way and do their own thing, and we need a little more individualism, a lot less groupthink.
They don’t care about the sovereignty of the people, only the state of their conscience. They don’t cry about injustice; they want space. They don’t appeal to the Bill of Rights; they trust their iron will. They renounce because of disposition, not principle. They speak for no one but themselves.
The minute they saw their opposition become a popular habit, they would have none of it. Thoreau would not have welcomed another fellow setting up 100 yards away and following his lead. Emily Dickinson didn’t go to her room, shut the door, and create a legendary corpus in order to be an example to others. Jack Kerouac despised the Hippies who idolized him. Wyatt and Billy stick to themselves. These acts follow an old strain of nonconformity. Wyatt’s helmet and gas tank are decorated with the American flag.
Such renegades exist because the “world’s opinion” (Emerson’s phrase) now and then grows overbearing, and these Americans can’t stand it. A stifling social atmosphere, a bad law, an authority figure can make these characters cry, “No! in thunder,” as Melville said of Hawthorne.
When William F. Buckley started his rollicking campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965, he knew he would never win, but the reality of two political parties so stale and phony in their approach to governance was too much. He had to act, announcing his platform in National Review with the headline, “Mayor, Anyone?”
Norman Mailer marched on the Pentagon in 1967 and halted at the rope marking a line they must not cross; soldiers stood just beyond. It signified to him the military-industrial complex that had bungled the war and tarnished the country. To pass that barrier was to risk a beating and an arrest, but he had to do it. It’s an existential face-off, Me vs. It, and Mailer, like the others, won’t back down.
“Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” Emerson said, but our characters don’t claim anything sacred about their motives. They simply refuse the going tendency. They honor a different Founding, a personal declaration of independence. The episodes are fraught and intense, the outcomes not always pleasing. They risk themselves, their happiness, their lives, even, and pay the price in loneliness and fatigue. Conformity is soothing, self-assertion tricky. It isn’t nice to be alone; it isn’t easy to rebel! If they abide by others, though, they can’t live with themselves.
Frederick Douglass doesn’t fight his overseer because slavery is immoral. He doesn’t invoke rights and the Constitution. He’s simply had enough. He and other such rebels don’t form a more perfect union or insure domestic tranquility. They strike against the existing tranquility. They see the stalwart virtues of yesterday become the temperate habits of today. They want more out of life, and they’re right to do so.
George Hanson is the alcoholic lawyer played by Jack Nicholson who joins the easy riders until some locals attack them in the woods and George is killed. Billy and Wyatt don’t understand why the townspeople have run them off.
“They think we’re gonna cut their throat or something,” Billy tells him. “They’re scared, man.”
“They’re not scared of you,” George says, “they’re scared of what you represent to them.”
“Hey, man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.”
“Oh, no,” George corrects him, “what you represent to them is freedom.”
“What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man,” Billy replies. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Mark Bauerlein is emeritus professor at Emory University and an editor at First Things magazine.