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Imagined Places: Journeys into Literary America


The spirit of adventure is strong in me. It always has been. My inclination, which is surely American, is never to be fully satisfied with any place I’ve lived, be it New York or Pennsylvania or Virginia. There are either too many people or too few of the right ones, too many condominiums or not enough bookstores.

My impulse has been to travel, to see for myself what lies on the other side of the mountain, not to accept hearsay but to see with my own eyes. The only places that didn’t seem to have an ever-enticing hill just beyond them were imagined places, those I’d dreamt up or read about in books. As Northrop Frye has said, “No matter what direction we start off in, the signposts of literature always keep pointing the same way, to a world where nothing is outside the human imagination.”

I guess I wanted a world as filled with sound and fury as Faulkner’s, as cradled in promises and dark mysteries as Frost’s, as populated with oddballs and heroes as Steinbeck’s. I wanted the mountains and the sea, the brutal winters that froze desire, and the unchanging tropical heat that fed a lazy anticipation. I wanted the perfect memory of childhood that Hannibal represented, but I wanted the violent awakenings of O’Connor’s Georgia as well. In books and legends these worlds existed for me, but I wondered whether, if I stepped beyond the magical circle of imagining, these worlds would disappear like a mirage shimmering into memory.

A few years ago I overheard one of my sons talking with a group of his friends about their fathers’ professions. I recall him saying, “My father reads books.” I felt sorry for him then for not being able to say something more exciting or even more reasonable, but he was close to the truth. That’s exactly what I’ve done for a good part of my life -- read books and talked about them with mostly captive audiences in classrooms. But for me books have always been adventures, a slipping off into unknown territories, a way to lose the world for a time and a way to find it again.