When I was seventeen, in 1980, I went on an American road trip with my friend Eva Gronowitz. We bought an old Vega station wagon in New York and set off, through Florida (where I got my provisional licence), Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado and Arizona, to California. Our useless old car would break down at regular intervals, and people stopped to help. We picked up hitch-hikers; they invited us to stay. At a trailer park in Florida, we saw Vietnam vets throw unopened cans in the fire for the explosions. In Texas we stayed in a YMCA that was partly a halfway house, with subdued women in blue overalls and stringy hair.
I got my full driver’s licence in Texas. The inspector had dodged the draft, and spent the Vietnam War in Sweden. ‘I love your people,’ he said, smiling benignly as I failed to parallel park for the third time. We drove on and on, Neil Diamond’s ‘September Morn’ playing on all the radio stations from New York to California. We were so innocent. But not once did we feel afraid or threatened.
Twelve years later, the young Christopher McCandless, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, set off on his own road trip, which ended, fatally, when he walked into the wild in Alaska. Jon Krakauer wrote the book, and Sean Penn, who knows a bit about another kind of wild, made a powerful film, Into the Wild.
Thoreau merged the ideas of individual liberty, resistance to unjust government and living in the wild, now a somewhat dangerous notion, and not just for the individuals concerned. Andrew Motion’s beautiful ‘found’ poem speaks of Thoreau, but every piece in this issue suggests a journey into the wild, one way or another. Most are set in rural America: Alaska, Minnesota, Idaho, New Mexico and Texas.
I had expected more metaphorical wilderness, but this is America: a genuinely wild land. The wilderness itself, however, is highly regulated, sometimes by competing interests. One quarter of all American land remains in government ownership. ‘It is one of the great unspoken facts of America that the land of the free largely belongs to the state,’ Adam Nicolson memorably writes.
Any collection of writing, Granta too, reflects the interests of the editor more than the spirit of the age, but it’s tempting nevertheless to speculate about the state of the nation. We have done it before. In 2002, Granta published an issue entitled ‘What We Think of America’. Ian Jack, then editor, was disturbed by his sense that, post 9/11, many people thought America had ‘had it coming’. It is striking how even then, before the invasion of Iraq, before the War on Terror took off in earnest, and before torture was legitimized on a dubious legal technicality, people presumed violence. America, wrote Harold Pinter in his pugnacious piece, ‘knows only one language – bombs and death’.
So what language does America know now? Gentle introspection, I would say, judging by what we read. We saw several pieces about the uncanny; evidence, Freud might have argued, of 9/11 and the war dead. In the end we took only two: Diane Cook’s new story ‘The Mast Year’, and Anne Carson’s ‘Krapp Hour’ – the surreal poetry of Carson wrapped up in the tired glibness of a TV talk show. But death and violence, often with a sense of melancholy distance, are part of many of the other stories. America is mourning, and no wonder.