Sources for "Travels in North America"

Sources for Lines in "Travels in America"
by Edward Brunner

As Craig S. Abbott has discovered (and reported in "The Guidebook Source for Weldon Kees’ ‘Travels in North America,’" Notes on Contemporary Literature 19:3 [May 1989], 8-9), for "Travels in North America" Kees borrowed descriptions in some passages from The American Guide: A Source Book and Complete Travel Guide for the United States, ed. Henry G. Alsberg (New York: Hastings House, 1949). The sections (lines 43-44, lines 49-50 and lines 51-54) in which he quotes from an unnamed source in describing Los Alamos, Cadiz and Dalton are all passages that have an origin in phrases written for this guidebook.

Abbott notes that Kees’s most significant borrowing centers on the passage describing Los Alamos, New Mexico. (To save space, the Guidebook used "&" and abbreviated wherever possible):

Town is located on mesa top set in scrub cedars & pinon pines at foot of tall mesa where sunset frames peaks of distant Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mts., fitting portent for deceptively peaceful town, known as "Capital of the Atomic Age." Constantly patrolled by uniformed guards. Its nearly 69,000 as. [acres] & outlying sites are surmounted by high wire fences enclosing test sites deep in wooded canyons or near-by mesas & "Tech. Area," the highly equipped research lab (under contract with Univ. of Cal.), now working on atom bomb that will probably make obsolete the one used at Eniwetok (Alsberg 1029)

The passage identifies a source for the quote in the poem "this ‘fitting portent / For the Capital of the Atomic Age,’ a quote that is not entirely precise. What Kees reproduces with precision, though, is the sardonic tone in the Guidebook. Though Kees hardly needed any special prompting to write ironically, the Guidebook in fact is an antecedent for the sardonic tone of the passage. .

Abbott has also located another set of passages that Kees uses in his poem:

Cadiz is the center of large dark leaf tobacco-growing area & is home of several wealthy planters. Town is well known for number & quality of hams it ships (Alsberg 929)

Dalton., nat. known for candlewick-bedspread industry, begun a century ago. Rainbow lines of bedspreads are on display along hy. … Marker records imprisonment in nearby cabin & trial (1835) of John Howard Payne, author of "Home Sweet Home" & champion of the Cherokee (Alsberg 829).

Variations on these passages appeared as quotations in the poem, in the lines that describe the "the towns one never sees" that may be "best" because they are "Preserved, remote, and merely names and distances":

Cadiz, Kentucky, "noted for the quality of hams it ships,
The home of wealthy planters," 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."

As these descriptions suggest, Alsberg’s Guidebook was in essence a redaction of the many WPA-sponsored historical tour guides that had been produced in the late 1930s. Out of the 1348 pages of the Guidebook, about 1150 pages presented auto tours in a format identical to that of the WPA tour guides. Just as the tour guide directed a driver down a road in a certain direction so did Alsberg’s Guidebook. Moreover, Alsberg’s compilers often drew heavily on the prose in the tour guides. The description of McGregor, Iowa, in Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State (1938) is as follows:

McGREGOR, 3 m. (627 alt., 1,299 pop.), in a ravine with bluffs rising on both sides to a height of about 400 feet was named Coulee des Sioux by early French traders. In 1836 when Alexander McGregor established a ferry from Prairie du Chien, Wisc., to the village, it became known as McGregor’s Landing. Overlooking the business section is a towering bluff called McGREGOR HEIGHTS; here the American School of Wild Life Protection holds annual sessions in August. This unusual organization has on its faculty naturalists and scientists from many parts odf the United States. On McGregor Heights is an Observation Tower, affording an excellent view of the river.

Within a radius of 15 miles from the town are hundreds of effigy mounds, fortifications and earthenworks. Some of the mounds are 300 feet long; they were built in the shape of birds, bears, wolves, and serpents. A number of Indian village sites and cave shelters have also been found here. (Hawkeye 443)

The copywriters for Alsberg’s Guidebook must have had the WPA tour guide directly in front of them as they wrote:

US 18 follows R. bluffs to McGREGOR, 3., in ravine edged by high cliffs which in 1836 became terminus of ferry line from Prairie du Chien est. by Alex. McGregor. On McGregor Heights, Amer. School of Wild Life Protection, whose faculty includes naturalists & scientists from all over the country, holds annual sessions in Aug. Within radius of 15 m. are hundeeds of Ind. Village sites, cave shelters, effigy mounds, fortifications & earthworks. (Alsberg 633)

Like some of the WPA tour guides, moreover, Alsberg’s copywriters had a sharp eye for a historical "vignette" that exposed corporate injustice. The Guidebook’s description of the No. 5 Mine Disaster, in its write-up of Centralia, Illinois, is particularly pointed:

One of the worst mining disasters occurred in Centralia Mine No. 5 on March 25, 1947, when 111 men were killed in an explosion. Extensive underground workings of the mine, opened in 1907, made a trap for the miners. Dangerously dry & dusty state of mine had been recognized for several yrs. Centralia Coal Co. was indicted for "willful negligence" & fined $1,000. Legislature passed resolution expressing "profound grief & sorrow" & purchased painting "The Coal Miner." (514)

This is not material, of course, that could have been borrowed from the WPA tour guide because the disaster had not yet happened when Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide was published in 1939. What is noteworthy is that when Alsberg’s Guidebook researches historical facts and produces original material to update history that material can be as sardonic as the "Monte de Cristo" reference in the description of Los Alamos. In writing "Travels in North America," Kees was almost certainly ready to echo not just the characteristic prose style of Alsberg’s Guidebook and the WPA tour guides, but also their stark and mordant vignettes that offered sharply-etched glimpses into the injustice of American history.

Not exactly similar vignettes but perhaps the seeds of possible vignettes may be glimpsed in the Guidebook’s brief commentary on the four places that Kees mentions in lines that directly follow the quotations describing Cadiz and Dalton:

– Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan;

Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington
Are momentarily the shifting centers of a dream,
Swept bare of formica and television aerials
And rows of cars that look a little more like fish each year.
– A dream that ends with towns that smell of rubber smouldering;
A brownish film clings to the windshields
And the lungs; the skies are raining soot
And other specks that failed to fit into the paint
Or the salami. A cloud of grit sweeps over you and down the street.

In the brief descriptions that accompany these four locations in the Guidebook, there are flashes of a broader and deeper American history evident – a history that registers the presence of natives as well as raises the question as to what became of them, a history that recalls America’s colonial past and its ties to a British colonialism, a history that acknowledges the development of industry on a vast scale as well as recognizing its almost certain destructive impact on local ecology.

WELEETKA, 151.5 & WETUMKA, 162., are farmer’s trading centers with many Creek Ind. Inhabitants. (Alsberg 1003)

KIPLING, 2nd lumbering village named for the poet (see Sault Ste. Marie Trip II). (Alsberg 547) [The other lumbering town was named "Rudyard." (Alsberg 559).]

GLENROCK, with large oil refineries dominating town. Before town was started (1886), Mormons operated irrigated gardens in reg. To provide migrating Saints with fresh foodstuffs. (Alsberg 1108)

CHEHALIS (Ind. "shifting sand"), so named because of sand at Chehalis R.’s mouth (sett. 1873) (Alsberg 1245)

It seems, as we read the poem, that Kees has chosen these four place-names for their exotic, unlikely sounds. In the lines of his poem that follow their mention, a dark and grim reality slowly emerges that undermines the expectation that a visit to any of the places will be rewarding. The descriptive sentences in the Guidebook – sentences that Kees must have had before him or flipped to at random as he was composing – are in alignment with the increasingly grim meditation that Kees pursues. The exotic-sounding locations that seem compelling enough on a map or even in a quick glance at a tour guide quickly divulge darker layers of meaning in the brief references to their history in Alsberg’s Guidebook. If the lines in the poem imply that the American Dream has come undone, the information in Alsberg’s Guidebook could stand as further confirmation.

Kees was familiar with the Guidebook because he was commissioned to write one of the essays that was printed in its opening section, an essay on American literature. (His survey was one among a group of others on "History," "Government," "Indians," "Labor," Architecture," "Art" and "Music.") As Abbott notes, one passage in that survey neatly describes his own poetry. "One of the touchstones of poetic modernism" he identifies as a "revelation of the modern world through the device of an infinitely sophisticated fragmentation that results in a more subtle, complex and shifting view of the world’s meaning" (Alsberg 77). Kees demonstrated the aptitude of this definition by doubling back into the very Guidebook of which he was a part to find examples of such "fragmentation" that he could shape into his own sense of a "subtle, complex and shifting view."

Works Cited

Copyright 2000 by Edward Brunner

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