Since the beginning, America itself has been a journey: a unique quest—with both tangible and existential goals—that has always resulted from and required displacement, while also necessitating escape. The novels, Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, and Native Son reflect this American journey and complicate deeply ingrained American ideals that are so inundated in American society and the American narrative that they often go unexamined. In each of these novels, all of which are celebrated pillars of American literature that both reflect and have shaped their respective Zeitgeist, there is some kind of disruption—a move away from community. The disruption that occurs in each novel spurs the characters on quests that are distinctly American, insofar as the characters seek to enjoy the promises that the “American Way of Life” offers: America is exceptional; America is good; America is free. However, all the characters in these novels fail—miserably. These mythic quests turn out to be gravely disappointing and harmful; at the end of each novel, the characters are more isolated than at the beginning of their American journey.
The American Way of Life demands movement: constant searching for something better that we don’t already have. Movement—across oceans, across land, across neighborhoods—drives the American journeys in these three novels. Within the movement of each journey, the characters come to various realizations about the American Way of Life; they come to see the dark underbelly of America: its myth and hypocrisy, its hollowness and disparity. While attempting to live the American Way of Life, these characters also come to see its predestination for failure. The dominant creed of America, the American Way of Life, seems to be a narrow, necrophilic, unsustainable philosophy that plunges the country toward destruction while blinding the large majority of its citizens through its self-proclaimed exceptionalism, righteousness, and freedom.
Despite all this, the characters in these novels keep going forward; there is hope in Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, and Native Son. While American journeys and their mythic quests delude and disappoint and destroy, they also allow for revelation—for a deeper consciousness that has the potential to be shared and nurtured, and perhaps transform our society and the way of life to which we aspire.