An Immigrant's Memorial Day
How “American Impressions” Came to Be
By way of commemorating this Memorial Day (the Jasper Johns above is commemoration and celebration aplenty, but as always, all is vanity, so...) I’ve finally managed to collect and make available on this site all 52 chapters of my book-length journey across the United States. First, a brief explanation.
In 1998 the Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., where I was a member of the editorial board, was looking for ideas to commemorate the millennium. I pitched a project I’d had in mind since landing in the United States in 1979: Send me across the country for a year and let me write from every state. The paper went for it, and “American Impressions: An Immigrant’s Journey” went from concept to a Chevy Venture, a couple of company credit cards, a Nikon camera and a cell phone. The rest was up to me. Beginning in September 1998 I spent most of the next sixteen months on the road, logging 60,000 miles, two kidney stones and 130,000 words, most of those produced on deadline as I went from state to state — a 52-chapter odyssey that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world even though it had me away from my family most of those months and depressed out of my mind from the separation and the usual solitudes of the road.
My intention was not to write a travelogue. None of that best-places-to-see or best-places-to-eat business. I was interested in focusing on one theme in each state that would be revealing of that state’s character while also progressively filling in a picture of the national character—socially, culturally, historically, economically, politically, and so on—as I went along. I know: the notion of national character is itself a minefield, especially when dealing with the United States, whose defining characteristic is that it is undefinable. Still, there’s room for attempting to grasp the impossible. The final result would be, I hoped, a coherent mosaic of the American Union at the millennium. Grandiose plans tend to fall short when talent does, and I can see that mine did again and again. But at least the journey didn’t (finishing it was never in question: I’m obsessive that way, and the paper was always supportive). In retrospect, the work stands out for me as an unwitting snapshot of pre-9/11 America, a time that seems paradoxically lost and unchanged. If the trip dates back a few years, recreating it here only encourages me to revisit these pieces and edit them according to what I’ve observed and learned since. Time permitting I’ll be adding pictures at some point and other elements that might enhance the trip. Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. The states are link-listed here in the order in which I visited them, and the order in which the presumptive book was written: