On "Travels in North America"

Jeff Sychterz

The American Dream is perhaps the most pervasive myth of American culture. The idea that America offers equal and unfettered opportunities for success to everyone regardless of race, sex and socioeconomic background forms the very foundation of our cultural consciousness. This dream has always been intimately tied to American geography; European immigrants looked to New York’s Ellis Island, homesteaders looked to the Western Territories, and Dust Bowl refugees looked to California for the fulfillment of their dreams and aspirations. Therefore, a pre-requisite for achieving that dream has always been movement, whether as a movement from downtown to uptown or across even greater distances such as the flight from rural farms to the big city at the end of the nineteenth century or the flight from the big city to suburbia at the end of the twentieth. Something about the vastness of the American landscape fuels this notion of endless opportunities and wide-open possibilities. Weldon Kees’s "Travels in North America" very appropriately develops the American landscape as an extended metaphor for the American Dream, and the journey as the search for that dream.

One of the most seductive qualities of the American Dream is its lack of specificity; the dream can be many different things to different people: for some it is a land without oppression, others food on the table, and still others two cars and a garage in which to put them. The one characteristic that unites these divergent desires is that America always seems to offer us something better than what we have, as long as we work hard or travel far enough. Because something better always exists, the American Dream is marked more by the search for it than the attainment of it. Kees’s speaker states the significance of the journey in this way:

Journeys are ways of marking out a distance,
Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually,
Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space
Between the oceans (91-4).

The poem plays with the dual meaning of "distance," such that the journey into the American landscape should serve to mark off space as well as difference. Both space and difference would provide the speaker with a new perspective—a site from which he can reexamine and objectively reevaluate his own accomplishments. However, prior to these lines the poem has revealed that the journey serves only to elide the vast "distances" and reveal the profound sameness of the American landscape.

The poem’s opening stanza immediately defuses the power of the American landscape by presenting it to the reader on a map. On a map the person’s finger can slide in a second from San Luis Obispo to Kansas City: "Here is San Luis Obispo. Here / Is Kansas City, and here is Rovere, / Kentucky." Not only is America’s vastness brought down to scale, but Kees presents to us three random names without commentary, saying only "here is" as if the name on the map is all that differentiates these particular black dots. The map conceit continues to shape the entire poem, implicit in the ease with which the poem wanders randomly through the country, jumping from California to Ohio, New Mexico to Kentucky or Minnesota to Georgia, ticking off places the speaker has never visited but would like to, and describing places he has experienced. This technique causes unique places of the American landscape to run together and remain for the most part undifferentiated, as if they all are nothing more than "green ink blending into blue" (102); only the names signify them as unique.

Nevertheless, the place names themselves sound impressive and full of promise; the Spanish San Luis Obispo, with its full "oo" and "o" sounds has an exotic appeal, Kansas City seems to encompass the promise and excitement of a frontier state, and Rovere has a rich continental European connotation. The most overt statement of this theme occurs in stanza six, which begins with the statement, "possibly the towns one never sees are best." The stanza follows this casual proclamation with a litany of unique and suggestive place names that the speaker has not yet visited, such as "Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan; / Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington" (55-6). These unvisited but named dots on a map operate as "shifting centers" of the American dream precisely because they are not visited. The speaker directs our gaze to these names on the map and like him we desire them because they represent "distance"—removed from our monotonous existence by both space and difference. Just the sight of these place names arrayed on the page seems to promise a vast array of different cultures and experiences available to the ready traveler. Because of the allure inherent in their place names, we imagine that these cities hold something better for us.

Visiting these places however shatters this illusion of "distance." The first definite description of place we receive—the Seraphim Motel with its "well-fed moths" and tacky petunias—remains nameless. Unlike the previously named cities, this unforgettable black dot remains unnamed, as if the material reality of place erases any promise inherent in the name. Kees presents us with an America where space is elided and "distance" erased, not just by the ubiquitous automobile, but also by the smoothing out—as well as eradication—of cultural differences. Once visited the unique cultural promise of a city’s name is replaced by the same Laundromats, diners and numerous motels that dominate the American landscape. Every city looks like every other city and their details tend to run together: "Main, First, and Market fuse together" (71). The ultimate figure of this smoothed over landscape is the oxymoronic indistinguishable landmark: "There was a landmark, I remember, that was closed" (18). The speaker can remember that Santa Barbara had a landmark, but he cannot name it because its specificity has been erased, as if the landmark were some "tinned stuff" washed ashore "with the labels gone" (98). American culture washes over the landscape, like the ocean washes over the shore, breaking up rocks and smoothing them into one expanse of beach, on which is deposited the flotsam and jetsam of consumer culture.

Form emphasizes content in stanza seven, the stanza that most overtly deals with this running together of the American landscape. Not only is it close to twice the length of other stanzas, it also ends with the only enjambed line in the poem, spilling its contents into the following stanza:

You have forgotten
Rooms that overlooked a park in Boston, brown walls hung
With congo masks and Mirós, rain
Against a skylight, and the screaming girl
Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds
Who quoted passages from Marlow and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

These lines not only run across stanzaic breaks, they also present an assemblage of different cultural words and images: masks from the ancient Congo, art from Modern Spain, tweed from contemporary Britain, and literature from Elizabethan England. Like the image of flotsam and jetsam in stanza nine, these lines reveal yet another aspect of the American landscape: where we do see diverse cultural influences they are often cobbled together in unique ways. Unlike the previously discussed smoothing over, this cultural assemblage is not entirely negative. Elsewhere in the poem the juxtaposition of different cultural influences can be beautiful, for example listening to New Orleans jazz while leaving Cincinnati (19-23), or seeing "a Navajo in levis reading / Sartre" in Santa Fe (33-4). It is through the "distance" created by such scattered epiphanies that we come most closely to escaping the monotony of American middle-class existence. These moments of beauty supply the only consolation in the speaker’s failed search for the American dream.

These epiphanic moments, however, are washed over by a rundown landscape of tacky motels, bad food, and indistinguishable landmarks (as well as threatened by the ever present atom bomb as discussed by Heather Zadra); and the poem suggests that we are powerless to change that landscape. At the Seraphim Motel, the speaker attempts to change his material conditions to no avail: "We threw a nickel in the wishing well, / But the moths remained, and the petunias too." Similar to the map reducing the distance of American geography, here the American Dream has been reduced to the act of tossing change into a wishing well. Despite this infusion of capital the speaker cannot satisfy even the simplest mundane desires, obtaining a room free of insects and tacky flowers. Even the specificity of the offering, "a nickel," indicates that a relatively large infusion of cash—if one considers that a typical offering to a wishing well in 1952 was a penny—cannot satisfy the wish.

But "a nickel in the wishing well" is hardly the proper application or sufficient amount of capital needed to better the speaker’s material conditions—or in other words to achieve the American Dream. The speaker and his partner(s) could bribe the manager into removing the tacky petunias and annoying moths, but if they had that kind of money they could afford to stay in a more upscale hotel. This particular material reality reveals the inherent paradox of the American Dream: in order to achieve it one must have a large supply of capital in the first place. A particularly glaring example of this paradox is memorialized by Woody Guthrie in the song "Do Re Mi":

California’s a Garden of Eden.
It’s a paradise to live in or see.
But believe it or not,
You won’t find it so hot,
If you ain’t got the Do-Re-Mi.

When refugees from the Dust Bowl tried to cross into what they thought was the fertile job market of California they were turned back at the border because they lacked sufficient capital. Meanwhile, visitors with enough money were allowed to enter the state.

Kees however can and does take us into California in the second stanza; but like the refugees from the Dust Bowl he finds his access to the American Dream blocked by a lack of capital. Even there the speaker is stuck in the America of motels with heated swimming pools and restaurant food with the "classic taste of tin." The one landmark that could possibly differentiate Santa Barbara from everywhere else on the map is not only indistinguishable it is closed: "There was a landmark, I remember, that was closed." One landmark that should differentiate Santa Barbara from the rest of the American landscape is its reputation as a high-class vacation town with fancy hotels and expensive restaurants. This reputation leads the reader to wonder if the landmark is closed for repairs or just closed to the speaker and others of his socioeconomic class. Also, the placement of this line closes the entire stanza, which begins "And here is Santa Barbara where . . ." with the word "closed." Therefore Santa Barbara, as a shimmering possibility above the washed out blasé American landscape, is closed to the vast majority of those Americans without the Do-Re-Mi.

In Weldon Kees’ "Travels in North America" attainment of the American Dream for the most part remains elusive, perhaps because of the vague and often-contradictory quality of American middle-class desires—we want something better, but don’t know what that something is. Each American city arrayed across a map offers the possibility of something new, something better, or something that offers us "distance" from the rest of the culturally smoothed over American landscape. Once visited, however, the reality of motels, indistinguishable landmarks, unattainable wealth, and bad food overwhelms and washes out whatever cultural significance the town might have. The only cities that maintain their individuality are those that we never see. These cities maintain their allure only as possibilities, or as dreams. Traveling through North America, therefore, reveals that the American Dream is nothing more than just that, an insubstantial dream with nothing material backing it up.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Heather Zadra

Jeff Sychterz has succinctly described Kees’ “Travels in North America” in its relationship to the American Dream, aligning the speaker’s journey with westward expansion and the migration of Dust Bowl refugees; he then links these movements to the politics of economics and cultural erasure. Another lens through which we can approach the poem lies in Kees’ tension with a more “self” oriented concept of the journey, one connected in American culture by the individual’s freedom of escape and the gathering of lived experience. The expected progress of such a journey constitutes a shift from confusion or ignorance to some form of enlightenment, but Kees consistently reframes the implications of the trip, casting an eye of disillusionment on a failed land of opportunity. Despite brief glimpses of beauty, the poem ultimately reveals a cluttered but homogeneous landscape, one whose bleak sameness becomes a reason for searching for “some new enclosure” that, finally, may only be discovered through language. The speaker’s marginality as observer offers, rather than a romanticized vision of freedom from responsibility, the images that point to a post-World War II America sliding or melting into the indistinguishable lines, colors, and dots of a map.

Appropriately, the way in which the speaker actually remembers his trip is through identifying locations on “A ragged map, imperfectly enclosed by seaworn oilskin”—much as the speaker himself is “imperfectly enclosed” in the space of America. The blurred map is a visual reminder of the blending into uniformity that travelling through the United States imprints on the speaker’s mind: “And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in Atlanta, / The sudden sense that you have seen it all before: . . . / You have forgotten singularities.” Significantly, however, the speaker hones in on events that seem memorable for their specificity and that retain some beauty in their very descriptiveness:

brown walls hung
With congo masks and Mirós, rain
against a skylight, and the screaming girl
Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds
Who quoted passages from Marlowe and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

The act of naming the very moments he claims to have forgotten performs a political purpose, however filled with potential these images might appear to be. Against these and the rest of the poem’s “singularities,” Kees juxtaposes the inescapable existence of the atomic bomb, which could render all journeys meaningless in an instant:

The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,
Piñon pines and ruined pueblos, where a line
Of tall young men in uniform keep watch upon
The University of California's atom bomb.
The sky is soiled and charitable
Behind barbed wire and the peaks of mountains--
Sangre de Christo, Blood of Christ, this "fitting portent
For the Capital of the Atomic Age."
We meant to stop, but one can only see so much. A mist
Came over us outside Tryuonyi caves, and a shattered cliff.

The anxiety behind these words cancels out all potential for beauty in the otherwise natural setting; and the bomb, like the mist that covers the travelers, overshadows all specific details that come before or after these lines. Hence, though the speaker continues to articulate moments that could be read as negative or simply ambivalent, he “forgets” or subordinates them in the context of an America that, above all, could destroy its enemies (or itself) in a moment. The journey has, to some degree, ended before it has really begun; the following lines act merely as addendums that represent lesser degrees of human error.

No time-based indicators suggesting change interrupt the flow of memory, and the speaker fails to move, throughout the course of the journey, from disillusionment to edification. The continual focus of the poem, despite the multitude of places and markers, is on the impossibility of America eliciting any real sense of calm self-discovery or revelation. The details described at each location produce not a consoling sense of familiarity, but rather a sense of disorientation, as the speaker realizes his inability to ground himself in any distinguishing place:

And here, now textured like a blotter, like the going years
And difficult to see, is where you are, and where I am,
And where the oceans cover us.

In building up to these final lines, the poem moves through a series of landscapes whose brief moments of beauty are overshadowed by the speaker’s associations with them: “Driving west / One Sunday in a smoky dawn, burnt orange along the landscape’s rim, / The radio gave forth five solid and remembered hours / Of gospel singers and New Orleans jazz, / With terse, well-phrased commercials for a funeral home.” Even the potentially pleasurable remembrance of watching a hazy sunrise while listening to gospel music ends with a journey towards death, an ironic detail in this context—for even that journey has a definable end, which is more certain than the travels the speaker describes. A marked moment of uncertainty blurs these
juxtapositions of negative and positive, beautiful and tainted, as the mind begins to lose focus and remains suspended in limbo:

[You] have forgotten why you left or why you came to where you are,
Or by what road and passages,
Or what it was, if anything, that you were hoping for.

Around the same time that Norman Rockwell was painting an idyllic America in scenes like "The Prom Dress," "The Soda Fountain," and "The Marriage License," Kees refuses to situate his verbal images in any such comforting familiarity. Rather, the familiarity he endorses effects a sort of mental paralysis, the result of viewing widespread contamination that overwhelms potentially redeeming qualities of the landscape. In place of the latter, we are given the reality of nuclear warfare, the cluttering of landscape with industrial markers and refuse—“rubber plant[s]” and “brownish film”—and the waste of America’s throwaways on the incoming tide. The notion that individuals still seek personal revelation in the midst of such debris becomes, in effect, absurd; though the speaker, like most travelers, reminisces about his “sightseeing” across America, his sight sees much more than the stereotypically romanticized journeyer. For the most part, he perceives a depersonalized void of "formica and television aerials / And rows of cars that look a little more like fish each year," images that render illusions of charming, idyllic scenes of America ridiculous. Instead, the vision is one of waste, of a civilization’s slow self-destruction represented in barren and broken things.

Indeed, it is better not to have seen some places—"Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan; / Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington / Are momentarily the shifting centers of a dream"—for then one can still imagine the possibility of their being untarnished, untainted with everything that has come before. Though the speaker’s reveries about the possibilities for each place allow him a brief reprieve from the depressing realities surrounding him, he cannot finally escape “that smell of rubber smoldering,” the grim reality of most towns he encounters. And even the most peripheral information renders the unseen towns somewhat sad in their implied likeness with the others:

Dalton, Georgia, “Center of a thriving bedspread industry, where rainbow lines
Of counterpanes may be observed along the highway. Here
The man whose Home, Sweet Home is known to all,
The champion of the Cherokee, John Howard Payne, was tried.”

To forget, perhaps, would be the greatest blessing of all, and to some extent, the speaker has forgotten specific elements of his trip. But he cannot forget the overwhelming impression of the memories on his mind, the fact that the journey has really never been more than “marking out a distance, / Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually, / Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space / Between the oceans.” And yet, this way of approaching the journey—representing it through language to “mark” not only distance but also the extent of desolation, and to seek a new place as yet unstained—is, perhaps, the only way in which one can also approach North America. The “enclosure” that the speaker seeks may not, finally, exist, for he brings with him, like the blurring map, the unerasable “stains” of his memory; but the act of articulating these memories may leave room for some alternative—if only suggested in its very absence from the scene he represents.

©Heather Zadra 2001

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