Following the unknown road
All writers, at some point in their lives, fantasize about authoring the next great novel that will stand tall among the works of the literary giants. The protagonist in this yet-to-be-told tale will find unparalleled adventure by following an unknown road to an unforeseen destination.
A good example of a fulfilled fantasy of this nature occurred between 1876 and 1883 when Mark Twain penned a handwritten manuscript on notepaper called, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The post-Civil War novel embodied an orphaned boy running away to escape a suffocating life imposed by a strict guardian. His hastily planned adventure took a major turn when he decided to help a runaway slave find freedom. The book explored the moral conflict that gave support to Twain’s belief that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience.”
At a time when the subject of racism was a highly controversial issue, Twain’s novel attacked the idea of racial prejudice head on, without reservation. For this, he was highly criticized and segregationists threatened his life.
One would think that publishing a work addressing that sensitive topic would be enough of an adventure. However, it wasn’t the only unknown road that Twain boldly followed. The story of Huck Finn was the first attempt by any American author to write in dialect. Twain used a first-person narrative written in the vernacular of rural Missouri to give strength to his characters. The technique drew both praise and criticism from the literary community.
The ambitious novel could be likened to a literary triptych. The controversial story, the exploration of moral conviction, and the introduction of an imaginative literary style established Twain’s place among the greatest of American authors. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is as relevant now as it was when first published.
Another book of notoriety to follow an unknown road was “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Set during the Great Depression, the novel chronicles the story of the Joads, a sharecropper family that was driven from their home in the Oklahoma dustbowl where they lived in abject poverty.
Steinbeck wove a tale of courage fueled by despair in his graphic description of their journey to California with other “Oakies” of like mind. Hope was their only asset, and it offered little help in their search for jobs, dignity and a better way of life.
Steinbeck’s 1939 novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. The book has been a teaching tool in most institutions of higher learning as an example of American literature at its best.
Life in post-WWII America brought the need for change in the American psyche. A war-weary country needed time to heal its wounds and learn to live with the physical and emotional scars resulting from years of battle and struggle in a fluctuating economy.
The daunting task of redefining
America philosophically, artistically, musically and culturally was epitomized in the fictionalized autobiographical novel, “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.
As one of the most influential authors of the Beat Generation, Kerouac’s novels and poetry challenged the status quo and laid the foundation for the hippie movement of the early 1960s.
The “On the Road” experiences of Sal Paradise and his friends are legendary to this day. In real life, Kerouac and renowned poet Alan Ginsberg returned from their travels to help establish the hedonistic bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village, N.Y., in the late 1950s. There, spontaneous creativity and exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression reigned supreme in the East Village “beatnik” community.
A recent postwar novel that embraced the exploration of unknown roads was published in 2006 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This was a post-apocalyptic Pulitzer Prize winning tale called “The Road” by American author Cormac Mc- Carthy.
The story is about a journey taken by a father and son across a landscape that had fallen victim to an unspecified cataclysm that all but destroyed civilization and life on earth. We can only hope that the adventures experienced in this tale of travel on unknown roads are not prophetic.
The world is presently experiencing dramatic change. Environment, economy, global politics, technology and religious convictions are all fighting for stability in a maelstrom of uncertainty. The elements for the next novel about following unknown roads are waiting impatiently to be put to good use by an author who is living somewhere in this system that we can’t understand.