Travels Without John
In search of America
The world worries about the United States. Has the country finally hit the buffers, or will it manage to maintain the illusion of being the ‘last best hope of earth’, as Abraham Lincoln put it? Geert Mak spent months travelling through America to discover what has become of the land of unlimited opportunity. Although still glorying in its recent past as the indisputable leader of the free West with a mission to police the universe, it is now clearly at odds with itself. The political climate is poisonous, the economy undermined by easy money, and an unprecedented number of Americans are living at or below subsistence level.
Mak chose John Steinbeck as his guide. In 1960 the American novelist stepped into a camper van at Sag Harbor on Long Island with his poodle Charley to begin a trek through dozens of states, from east to west and back again, ‘in search of America’. Mak set off along the same route, aiming to find out what remains of the restless but prosperous America that Steinbeck describes. As well as taking him to the most remote and run-down places, his journey became a painful confrontation with Steinbeck, a hugely successful but weary author, who sometimes played fast and loose with the facts.
Travels Without John is a compelling analysis of America in the early twenty-first century. Mak uses Steinbeck’s experiences to get to the root of everything that makes America what it is: faith in both a benevolent God and individual ability; an inexhaustible passion for innovation and destruction; a desire to dominate nature; and a relentless urge to lecture the rest of the world.
The aspiration to create an ideal society has for centuries prompted reckless experimentation in the United States. As well as astonishing successes, there have been many painful failures. Mak illustrates this by looking at great Americans such as Theodore Roosevelt as well as the day-today concerns of Joe Sixpack. In America life means taking risks.
Travels Without John is a logical next step in Mak’s oeuvre. After analyzing a village (Island in Time), a city (Amsterdam. A brief life of the city), a country (the Netherlands, in My Father’s Century) and a continent torn apart by war (In Europe), he now gets to grips with a weary world power. A born storyteller, he once again uses his sharp journalistic eye to connect the lives of ordinary people with the broad sweep of history.
- What Mak did for Europe he now does for the United States, showing how the past works through almost imperceptibly to the present day.
- The wars, changing economic fortunes and space travel that keep the rest of the world under America’s spell are described through the experiences of ordinary Americans. It is an approach tried many times before, but never with such evident success.