Restless Nation is an enjoyable exploration of the American national character. The book presents a plausible hypothesis, supported by the author’s broad knowledge of the nation’s history and social trends and illustrated throughout by aptly chosen literary references that reflect admirably wide reading. The problem is that, despite all these positives, I just don’t buy the central argument, however much I have been forced to define exactly why I reject the basic notion of national restlessness.
James Jasper develops a familiar theme in the national self-concept, namely, the cliché that a country born on the move has never really ceased believing that a better life is to be found over the next hill. Insofar as there is a fundamental American myth, it is this national cult of restlessness, the faith in movement and change. From earliest times, Americans have believed that their real destiny lies somewhere else, where they will find the big break, the big money. Americans switch jobs and houses frequently, they change religions, they adopt new identities. Not for nothing is a very common type of indiscriminate religious enthusiasm known simply as “seeking.”
And the concept of a nation of seekers is anything but new. As Tocqueville wrote in the 1830’s,
An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing. . . . At first sight, there is something astonishing in this spectacle of so many lucky men restless in the midst of abundance.
The reference to “men” is appropriate, since Jasper stresses faith in movement as a distinctively masculine trait, one that appeals particularly to boys and young men. The shades of Buck and Jim are never far from the author’s mind, but we could find countless other examples in culture high and low. Road films such as Wild at Heart or Thelma and Louise are obvious updatings of the Huck Finn myth, while Louis Malle’s classic Atlantic City (1980) lovingly examines the world of those perpetual losers who have wandered to seek their fortune in this latest El Dorado. To take a sentence from a much-less-reputable film, Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy, “The aim of the convoy is to keep on moving.” For Jasper, this could be a national motto quite as valid as E Pluribus Unum.
Jasper sees restlessness and movement underlying political attitudes, the potent ideas of individualism and self-sufficiency that cause so much distrust of government. Indeed, American history has been shaped at least as much by its modes of transportation, its opportunities for seeking, as by its political ideologies. The successive societies created by the sailing ship, the Conestoga wagon, the steamboat, the train, and the automobile differed from each other quite as much as the eras so often described by merely political labels. This is especially true of urban life. As Thoreau wrote in the 1850’s,
Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans and the rest arc the names of wharves projecting into the sea (surrounded by the shops and dwellings of the merchants), good places to take in and to discharge a cargo.
Forty years later, another observer might well have described the cities of that era as chiefly rail depots, while modern cities have been shaped by the automobile. And the nature of American cities has another interesting connection to national restlessness, since the lack of an overwhelming metropolis such as London or Paris prevented the kind of total concentration of wealth and talent that occurred in other lands. People were thus encouraged and enabled to spread out over the continent.
Incessantly on the move, America has always been a nation in the process of renewing itself, a process constantly reinforced by successive waxes of immigration. Though migration has occurred since the dawn of humanity, Jasper stresses both the astonishing volume of American immigration and the fact that it has never dried up, not even in the years of the most strict legal controls. And immigrants, he stresses, are by definition wedded to notions of novelty and rootlessness. They have a natural comprehension of the idea of constant flight, constant seeking, the fresh start. As D.H. Lawrence explained, “That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.”
From the national characteristic of restlessness, Jasper moves on to describe what he sees as the negative consequences of the phenomenon in terms of anomie and lack of connection, and to wonder whether Americans arc ready now to grow up and settle down. To a substantial degree, he explains mobility as a function of sexual identity and favors liberal social and governmental policies to counteract what he sees as a male flight from responsibility. It’s easy enough to argue with his political agendas, but these do not detract from a thought-provoking book.
But is its thesis correct? There are two obvious objections, the first of which is that Americans, in their restlessness as in so much else, arc not as unique as they like to think. A hundred years ago, Americans tended to portray themselves as homebodies in comparison with the imperialist European nations—in particular the British—then marauding across die globe. Despite the overwhelming influence London had on British life, inhabitants of the four island nations were at least as active movers and seekers as the Americans, and their heritage of restless movement survives today in the national myths of Canada and Australia. I think that Jasper also underestimates the powerful culture of movement and migration that has always existed in Europe, and which is steadily increasing in the context of European unification. And not just in Europe: Many Indians and Chinese remain happily in their villages over generations, but millions of others wander the world, creating vast diaspora populations. Like Americans, they seek their fortunes where the big money lures, and when political or economic circumstances turn difficult, they pull up stakes and move on.
I’m also skeptical about the whole question of American rootlessness. I may be prejudiced by my residence in Pennsylvania, the state with the most static population in the United States. Pennsylvanians very often grow up and die in the communities that their families settled, while some of the deepest-rooted of these communities are found in the most identifiable immigrant areas of its big cities, such as Philadelphia. Even tearing the heart out of the local economy does not succeed in driving them away. Nor, apparently, does a lack of zeal to move on reflect any failure to conform to masculine behavior patterns. If you believe the contrary, feel free to argue the point with any inhabitant of Italian South Philadelphia—still one of the most fiercely close knit communities to be found anywhere. A good opening gambit might be to accuse the local residents of effeminacy because they are too scared to move west. Good luck.
Nor, of course, is this love of place solely an Last Coast phenomenon. The Mormons may have found themselves in Utah at the end of a classically American piece of wandering and seeking; once there, however, they soon struck deep roots in their beloved land of Deseret, forming loyalties they still retain despite their sense of global mission. Missionaries sent off to Brazil or France return happily to their homes and raise families where their great-grandparents set up house. And I am told that even Texans, those descendants of the restless pioneers, still share a certain modest pride in their state, or at least in one of its many component regions.
Across the nation, we can still find countless examples of such authentic local communities, varying in size from whole states to tiny enclaves. Admittedly, their distinctive identities have been steadily eroded over the decades by the spread of national retail chains, generic fast-food restaurants, and so on. In other words, the factors making for restlessness and lack of communal identity have been increasing rapidly only in recent years, permitting Jasper to project these trends backward. Since local identities are weak now, he seems to argue, they never existed in the first place. To the contrary (I suggest), Americans, having so often demonstrated their fervent and irrational love for some particular chunk of ground with its attendant trees, rivers, and wildlife—or with the appropriate tenements, smokestacks, and mean streets, as the case may be—are no different from other peoples. They sit comfortably at home, year after year, occasionally reading accounts by better-educated liberal urbanites who seek to explain why Americans have no sense of roots.
I reject Jasper’s analysis, and naturally I dismiss the policy formulations he has founded upon it. Jasper wishes to create a society leased more on the allegedly feminine values of place and stability, in contrast to what he sees as a fading masculine restlessness characteristic of the historical phase we are moving beyond. Reading his book, I am reminded of a bitter line by Ian Fleming, who said that Americans had passed straight from adolescence to senility without experiencing maturity. Jasper advocates maturity, but his recommendations sound like a prescription for induced national senility.
[Restless Nation: Starting Over in America, by James M. Jasper (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 275 pp., $25.00]