Long ago a person dear to me disappeared for what would become eight years. When this happened I was given comfort and perspective by a professor of history whose study concentrated on the American South after the Civil War.
“You know what the most common record of young men was, after the Civil War?” he asked.
“You mean census records?”
“Yes, and church records, family histories, all that.”
“I don’t know.”
“Two words: Went west.”
He then explained that that, except for the natives here in the U.S., nearly all of our ancestors had gone west. Literally or metaphorically, voluntarily or not, they went west.
More importantly, most were not going back. Many, perhaps most, were hardly heard from again in the places they left. The break from the past in countless places was sadly complete for those left behind. All that remained were those two words: went west.
This fact, he said, is at the heart of American rootlessness.
“We are the least rooted civilization on Earth,” he said. “This is why we have the weakest family values in the world.”
This is also why he also thought political talk about “family values” was especially ironic. We may have those values, but they tend not to keep us from going west anyway.
This comes to mind because I just heard Harry Chapin‘s “Cat’s in the Cradle” for the first time in years, and it hurt to hear it. (Give it a whack and try not to be moved. Especially if you also know that Harry—a great songwriter—died in a horrible accident while still a young father.)
You don’t need to grow up in an unhappy family to go west anyway. That happened for me. My family was a very happy one, and when i got out of high school I was eager to go somewhere else anyway. Eventually I went all the way west, from New Jersey, then North Carolina, then Calfornia. After that, also Boston, New York and Bloomington, Indiana. There was westering in all those moves.
Now I’m back in California for a bit, missing all those places, and people in them.
There are reasons for everything, but in most cases those are just explanations. Saul Bellow explains the difference in Mr. Sammler’s Planet:
You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.
What explains the human diaspora better than our westering tendencies? That we tend to otherize and fight each other? That we are relentlessly ambulatory? Those are surely involved. But maybe there is nothing more human than to say “I gotta go,” without needing a reason beyond the urge alone.
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