Whenever I have bouts of cynicism, periods of pervasive pessimism—and they’re not infrequent—I try to remedy the situation with occasional travel. That may mean physical forays into the American outback (setting a course for, say, Utopia, Texas) or fantastical forays into the literary realm (“After all, tomorrow is another day”).
Sometimes, it’s a combination of the two. My first travel memoir, States of Mind, chronicled a 314-day cross-country excursion in 1995-96 that essentially was a cynical Generation Xer’s attempt to find out if that cynicism was justified—did I reflect the state of the union, or merely misjudge it? So I turned that figurative notion into a literal search for virtue in America – in places like Pride (Alabama), Justice (West Virginia), Honor (Michigan) and Wisdom (Montana).
So it was a hopeful expedition.
I would say most literary travelers allow sanguinity to ride shotgun. As Mark Twain once declared, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” We journey in search of something better.
Well, most of us do. Then there’s Henry Miller.
He’s best known toeing the obscenity/literary line in novels like Tropic of Cancer, but he also wrote a cross-country travel memoir. And it was about as hopeful as a pothole. It was brimming with condescension and despair, grumpiness and gloom. “One’s destination is never a place,” he wrote, “but a new way of looking at things.” Yet he seemed to pack a suitcase full of old biases and mean-spirited generalities, which colored his view of the American scene (after a long stay in Europe) during one cross-country trip in 1940-41.
He called his travel memoir The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
I’ve selected 28 cynical statements from his journey. There were far more to choose from:
1. “A great change had come over America… Everything was cock-eyed and getting more and more so. Maybe we would end up on all fours, gibbering like baboons.”
2. “The lack of resilience, the feeling of hopelessness, the resignation, the skepticism, the defeatism—I could scarcely believe my ears at first. And over it all that veneer of fatuous optimism—only now decidedly cracked.”
3. “I, on the other hand, always expect angels to pee in my beer.”
4. “New Hope was to be our first stop… New Hope is one of America’s art colonies. I have a vivid recollection of my state of mind on leaving the place. It framed itself thus: no hope for the artist!”
5. “America is no place for an artist: to be an artist is to be a moral leper, an economic misfit, a social liability.”
6. “I had to travel about ten thousand miles before receiving the inspiration to write a single line. Everything worth saying about the American way of life I could have put in thirty pages.”
7. Boston: “a vast jumbled waste created by pre-human or sub-human monsters in a delirium of greed.”
8. St. Louis: “a foul, stinking corpse rising up from the plain.”
9. New York: “the most horrible place on God’s earth.”
10. “New Orleans worships the past, but it watches impassively as the barbarians of the future bury the past cynically and ruthlessly.”
11. “The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle.”
12. “But there are kinds and degrees of suffering; the worst, in my opinion, is the sort one encounters in the very heart of progress.”
13. “…the bitterness in the heart, the skepticism, the cynicism, the emptiness, the sterility, the despair, the hopelessness which is eating up the American worker.”
14. “The houses seem to have been decorated with rust, blood, tears, sweat, bile, rheum and elephant dung.”
15. “The blacks are the weak and flexible backbone of this decapitated region of America.”
16. “Nowhere have I encountered such a dull, monotonous fabric of life as here in America. Here boredom reaches its peak.”
17. “Everything that was of beauty, significance or promise has been destroyed and buried in the avalanche of false progress.”
18. “What would happen if the war suddenly stopped I can’t imagine. There would be a lot of broken hearts. Maybe another crisis. People wouldn’t know what to do for themselves if peace were suddenly declared.”
19. “The most terrible thing about America is that there is no escape from the treadmill which we have created.”
20. “There is one thing America has to give, and that they are all in agreement about: MONEY.”
21. “The American park is a circumscribed vacuum filled with cataleptic nincompoops.”
22. “So far as true vitality goes, beyond forty-five we are a nation of derelicts.”
23. “America is a vast place, and I doubt if any man knows it thoroughly. It’s possible too to live in a place and not know anything about it, because you don’t want to know.”
24. “A swiftly decaying people, almost one-third of them pauperized, the more intelligent and affluent ones practicing race suicide, the underdogs becoming more and more unruly, more criminal-minded, more degenerate and degraded in every way. A handful of reckless, ambitious politicians trying to convince the mob that this is the last refuge of civilization.”
25. “Go West, young man! they used to say. Today we have to say: Shoot yourself, young man, there is no hope for you!”
26. “What good are words if the spirit behind them is absent?”
27. “All the trip had done for me was corroborate my intuitions.”
28. “Sometimes I think that the best books on America are the imaginary ones written by those who have never seen the country.”