Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wait for the Sequel, Strongman

Usually, I’m a writer who has a pretty clear idea of what he intends to do and goes pretty directly at it. Men of Tomorrow, for example, started as an idea to tell the story of the battles over the ownership and control of Superman between his creators and his publishers, both as a human story and as a way of looking at how our ways of creating mass entertainment were hammered out messily in the middle of the last century. About the only big shift it went through in the research and writing was that it tilted more toward the birth of the comic book business out of the immigrant Jewish culture, so I blew through a lot of the later parts of the story (e.g. Jerry Siegel’s creative struggles with Mort Weisinger in the early ‘60s) more quickly.
       But I guess just once in my life I had to let myself unmoor the craft, point toward the open water, and see where the wind took me. Because the book I’m pulling together now is nothing like the book I set out to write.
       The idea came, originally, out of my Men of Tomorrow research. I had become intrigued by the very strange figure of Bernarr Macfadden, bodybuilder turned fitness guru turned publisher of confessional magazines, who represented a lot of what fascinated me about the weird popular culture of the 1920s and '30s but who didn’t really fit into a book about comics. So when I sat down to come up with my next book, I thought of one I called Mad Fortune, about the confessional magazines and other junk magazines as viewed through Macfadden's bizarre life and personality. And that’s the idea I sold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
          I’d barely gotten into the research on that when I began to realize that it wasn’t enough to hold my interest, that it would inevitably become mainly a biography of Macfadden, and I really didn’t want to write just a biography, especially of a guy who was strange and intriguing but not very deep or complex. So I took it more into Macfadden’s relationship with censorship and the whole battle over what people could and couldn’t reveal in print in the early 20th century—especially as that played out in the overlooked but very influential True Stories, True Crime, True Confessions genre, which Macfadden created. Which I also liked because it brought me back onto the turf of Killing Monsters, where I wrote some, but not nearly as much as I wanted to, about the history of our “culture wars" over mass entertainment.
       In researching that, I discovered Anthony Comstock, the great American moral censor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was Macfaddens first serious antagonist. I found that particularly interesting, because Comstock and Macfaddens battles were mostly over the latters right to run physical fitness exhibitions and publish cautionary stories about venereal disease, which seem so beneficial to us now but were so threatening to so many people then. Somewhere in there, my working title changed to American Madness.

       So I started to write about Comstock as Macfaddens antagonist, although I still saw the story as being mainly viewed through the latter. Which, after a while, was starting to bog me down, although I couldn't figure out why. I hit my first frustrating dead spot. 
       Then came the stroke of luck that Im still grateful for: someone else wrote a biography of Bernarr Macfadden. Specifically, Mark Adams did, with his very entertaining and highly recommended Mr. America. Mark was very generous and gave me a whole stack of notes and research contacts hed compiled, but even more than that he made me rethink my book. Bernarr Macfadden isnt like Abraham Lincoln, the kind of guy wholl support an infinite number of biographies. I knew that I needed to reduce the Macfadden part of my story significantly and crank up the Comstock and other elements, so no one could mistake this for “another book about that crazy bodybuilder from a long time ago.”
       Which was hugely liberating, because thats when I realized how stifled I was feeling by having to focus everything on the crazy bodybuilder. And I hadnt been able to see that, because I was holding onto this idea that the book shouldnt change too much from my original conception. Like I said at the beginning, I wasnt the kind of writer who did that kind of thing.
       Luckily, my patient and forgiving editor, Eric Chinski, supported me in the new direction, and the book was reborn as The Undressing of America. Now it was about the whole cultural battle over exposure, concealment, sex, health, privacy, the body, and all that stuff—a battle were still feeling the repercussions of—as it developed through the decades of Comstock and Macfadden's careers from 1865 to 1930. The focus would still be on those two, and their legal conflicts would still be the central action, but it would include a huge number of other people around them: Mencken, Dreiser, Ziegfeld, Rutherford B. Hayes, all kinds of people.
       Which is the book I proceeded to research and write, and when I revise it I think its going to be a really good book. But its not the book Im rewriting now. Because while I was writing that book, a whole other book happened.
       The thing was, the more I wrote about Anthony Comstock, the more I realized that he just didnt make sense to a modern consciousness unless you understood where he came from. His moral thinking was so preposterously black and white, his assaults on the most innocuous (and most moral) material were so violent, that he could only come off as some sort of delusional crank—which made it impossible to understand how he had so much public support and so much political power. 
       To make that comprehensible, I had to tell the story of the antebellum reformers from whom he sprang and who provided the momentum for his crusade, those complex and extraordinary people who launched the temperance movement, the YMCA, and abolitionism—and first made “indecent” publications a target of holy wrath—because they believed they were founding the Biblical millennium on earth. Which required a new front section of the book, a sort of long prologue, that I at first thought could start in 1851 (founding of the YMCA), then realized would have to start in 1840 (arrival of a man named Morris K. Jesup in New York), and finally would have to stretch back to 1827, when moral combat broke out over a ballet dancers lifting skirt.
       At a certain point, after Id researched most of that and written a big chunk of it, I realized that this was all just too much for one book to handle. I found the story of “Americas first culture war” more interesting (at least for the moment) than any of the rest of it, and I knew that I could never give it its due if I had to squeeze it into the first quarter of a book covering an entire century.
      The punchline of all of this is...a book that started essentially as a biography of Bernarr Macfadden wont have Bernarr Macfadden in it at all. This ones going to have to cut off before he was born. I still have (and like) the rough draft of the book in which hes a major player, the original Undressing of America, and Ill be happy to see that one published as a follow-up to this one. With this book to stand on and refer to, Ill feel much more confident about telling Comstocks story. (And, if nothing else, Ill understand Comstocks background much more myself. One of the functions of writing a book is so the writer can understand his own material...but thats another post.) 
       Basically, Ive written a book and its sequel. Except I wrote the sequel first, so the book that gets published first is the one I wrote second. Ive spent years researching and writing two big books at once, neither of which will look much at all like the book I originally contracted to write. Hardly what I set out to do—but now I cant really imagine doing it differently.
       The hard part now is the title. The Undressing of America was conceived for the second half of the story, and its a perfect title for that. But after years of hyping my next book, The Undressing of America, itll feel strange to come out with some other book and have to explain that Undressing is still out there. But that I think Ill discuss with my editor. 
       Of course, theres also the other next book, Lost Hero, my collaboration with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, which I'm certain will be pretty much what it's been planned as, because I dont think Nicky will stand for anything else. Ive kind of forgotten what that feels like, honestly. Itll be a nice change. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ruins of Cairo

Ive wanted to see Cairo, Illinois (pronounced Kay-ro) for a long time, and I finally drove myself there this summer. Its a town that represents a lot in American history: a strategic point at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, a great river port of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a mob town from Prohibition and a decades later; then it went into free fall when the bridges and highways by-passed it, and then came race riots, white flight, economic collapse, flooding. It was built for 15,000 people and a booming economy, and now it has 2500 people and not much of an economy except what the county courthouse and visitors to the Civil War archives at the local library bring.
       The demographics tell a too-common story of heartland decline: nearly half the kids living under the poverty line, about as many single mothers running households as married parents, only seven men for every ten women (men get scarce when the money gets low). But in other ways Cairo is far from common. Its flat, marshy, hot, kudzu-grown, more Southern than Midwestern. The whole town was evacuated three years ago when the rivers rose. The weather, the floods, the plants, and time have brought a lot of it down. What remains of the old city are like islands in a rising lake.
       And yet, people do live there. A lot of them in a large, spare, rectangular housing project that looks as lonely as a silo on the prairie; others in cheap rentals at the edge of town, government-assisted units scattered among them; some in the old Millionaires Row,” now a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of hundred-year-old houses in various states of renovation and decay; a few in the shrinking downtown, where houses are one by one abandoned and left to fall. 
       Some of those people are fighting hard to keep the town alive. I saw a lot of people out mowing lawns, even on half-abandoned blocks. There were relics of one effort after another to turn empty walls into mural galleries or call attention to some historic block. And right in the middle of the jungled depths of the old downtown, I stumbled on a mansion that someone had obviously just recently given a complete and stunning renovation, down to a gas lamp in front and fountains bubbling in the garden. (I asked around and was told it was a gay couple from out of town.)
       Im not quite sure, really, what it all means to me and why I think about it so much...but I took some pictures. Scroll about halfway down, to the close-up of the pedestal of the lonely statue called the Hewer, installed in what was then the middle of a bustling downtown. Presented to the city of Cairo in token of his unswerving faith in her destiny.” It was the still, bronze faith of that mighty but immobile man that I kept thinking about on the road back to Chicago.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Creative Hate

“If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you, there is such a thing as creative hate!”
       The speaker is Thea Kronborg, the protagonist of Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, a prairie-town girl who
s carving out a career as an opera singer. She’s partly based on a real singer Cather knew and admired, but a lot of what she says comes straight out of Cather’s own experience as a prairie-town girl then carving out her own impressive career as a novelist.
       “How can I get much satisfaction out of the enthusiasm of a house,” Thea asks, “that likes her atrociously bad performance at the same time that it pretends to like mine? She’s talking about a rival singer, one who doesnt live up to Thea’s idea of what vocal art ought to be. If they like her, then they ought to hiss me off the stage. We stand for things that are irreconcilable, absolutely.”
      A couple of things have kept this on my mind lately: visiting Cather’s home town in Nebraska a few weeks ago and going to the San Diego Comic Con just last weekend.
       The Cather pilgrimage happened on my 57th birthday. It was fortuitous more than planned—my son had been intending to fly to Chicago for his annual G (as in Godzilla) Fest until he suddenly suggested we make it into a father-son road trip—but it turned out to be a powerful thing. Once I realized we’d be driving within fifty miles of Red Cloud, Nebraska, I decided to Cather it up good: listening to an audiobook of My Antonia (sending Nicky back to his earbuds), reading Five Stories when I wasn’t driving, making reservations at the Cather family home, now a guest house run the Willa Cather Foundation, doing the Cather tour run by selfsame Foundation, even having breakfast at the cafe with the hand-lettered sign in the window reading WE SELL CATHER. It was only two days that I spent immersed in her flat, hard country, her bright-burning ambition, and her spare, perfect art
—but those two days have stayed with me.
       Comic Con was a different sort of pilgrimage. It was my 31st year in a row going to that thing. I was going there when I was just a fan, and I was going there when I was writing seven scripts a month for DC and Marvel; I was going there when I gave up writing the comics themselves to write about their history, and I kept going there when comics were just about the furthest things from my mind. (Lest this sound like some sort of morbid compulsion, I should tell you that the main point of the trip now is to hang out with my friend Joe Filice and his family, with the Con as a pretext and an organizing principle.) Every trip there, whether I like it or not, becomes a journey through my own creative and professional past. 
       And God, did I ever use that creative hate in my past! There were writers I loved, admired, emulated, tried to learn from. But there were other writers I couldnt stand, writers I loved to bitch about and rage at, to satirize and mock (never to their faces, of course). And they were on my mind every bit as much as the writers I loved. Maybe more.
       These werent inept or egregiously bad writers. They were mostly popular or well respected, usually with good reason, but with aesthetics or goals or intended audiences drastically different from mine. They werent doing me any harm. Sometimes I tried to convince myself that they were taking away my audience, or degrading the form to the point that no one would be able to recognize good work, but that was only to justify my hostility. Nor was this about simple jealousy, although that would be easy to assume. I could be very happy for another writers success, even when it was much greater than mine...if it was a writer I liked. It wasnt really even about competitiveness.
       I needed those writers to define myself. I wasnt one of those writers who seems to have been born with a vision of what he must write. I wasnt even very good at knowing who I was as a person, let alone as a writer. I spent a long time working at self-definition. For that I needed mentors, collaborators, and role models, but I also needed people to contrast myself against, people about whom I could say, Im definitely not thatso that must mean Im this. If I was clear on what I didnt want to write, if I made that an anathema that would repel me every time I found myself drifting toward it, then I could stay on my own slowly emerging path.
       I found a lot of people to play that role: novelists, screenwriters, comics writers, and essayists, young writers emerging alongside me, aging veterans, and some who werent around anymore. I even had Thomas Wolfe on the list for a while (So damned self-preoccupied! Too many words! No discipline!), even though though the poor mug had been dead and losing critical favor for decades before I was born.
       And the more rage I could stir up against them, the more focus and energy I could bring to my own work. I nursed what Thea Kronborg calls the contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.”
      Not that I was doing any of this consciously. Like an adolescent who suddenly finds his parents stupid and infuriating, I made up a world view that served my larger purposes—and then threw myself into it with a blind passion. (The whole process of finding myself as a writer was basically an adolescent journey, in fact. I just dragged it on for a decade or so beyond the age of acne.) Of course, if it hadnt been unconscious, it wouldnt have worked. Self awareness is not always our friend.
       Somewhere along the way, that all changed. As I became more comfortable in who I was and what I was doing as a writer, I lost my energy for mocking and complaining about others. Then, at some point (around the time I became a dad, I think) I began to develop a compassion and a feeling of solidarity with everyone else who was pursuing this nerve-wracking career, whether the results were anything I liked or not. And, having lost the need to define myself as Not That Guy, because I finally had a sense of myself as This Guy, I began to appreciate writers I had been unable to like before, even to appreciate them precisely because they broke my personal rules. Thomas Wolfe could churn out some pretty powerful descriptions with all those words.
       I figure were all out there doing our best, trying to do what we think is good or hope other people will like, and theres room in the world for all our different aesthetics and philosophies and abilities. These days I cant even work up the energy to mock the woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. (In fact, I can never remember her name, which itself is different from the old days. Back then I would have had her name seared into my frontal lobe.) I assume shes doing what she loves to do, and lots of people like it because it speaks to something in them, and thats really fine with me. I do what I believe in doing, and people can stop to look at it if they want to. 
      Not that I dont still have strong opinions. Not that I dont get annoyed when a writer I like lets me down, especially if I think its from laziness or self-indulgence (you shouldve heard me when I finished The Goldfinch). Ive just found that anger and judgment take more out of me now than they give back. Our emotional energy is finite, and I need to direct mine where it will do some good. 
       But I do try to catch myself when Im tempted to tell some younger writer to lighten up or to lecture him on having compassion for our ink-stained comrades. Im where I am because I went through the process, and the process, at least for me, required a fair amount of what Willa Cather had the guts to call creative hate.
       Theres something attractive about those feelings, too. Theres a vitality and a potency in that kind of negative intensity that my grown-up acceptance and compassion can never completely replace. I suspect Cather felt the same. Her judgments of younger writers became more measured and philosophical even as the youngsters started making fun of her, but she still let Thea Kronborg have her rage. Even when I feel stupid for some of the arrogant judgments I laid on good writers when I was young and self-obsessed, I can still hear the nobility in Theas call to arms: 
       “You can’t try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that doesnt matter, then nothing matters.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lost Hero (a teaser)

Ill be at Comic Con in San Diego in a few weeks, and so will Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson. Among other things, well be trying to call attention to our book in progressLost Hero: The Adventurous and Tragic Life of the Man Who Invented the Comic Book—the story of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, one of the most remarkable and least known founders of the industry that Comic Con was built on. In advance of that, I thought Id share a look at it. Not an excerpt, more of a pitch or a teaser. Let me know if you find it intriguing. 


Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson created the comic book as we know it, discovered the first superhero, envisioned the graphic novel, and transformed the popular culture of America and the world. He also lived one of the most colorful lives of any significant figure in pop-culture history. But until now his name has been little more than a footnote in comics history.
       In the usual origin story, the founders of the comics industry were a gang of Lower East Side schlockmeisters scrambling to survive in the depths of the Depression. Major Wheeler-Nicholson’s background could not have been much more different. His grandfather was a Union Army surgeon who founded a newspaper in Tennessee to help heal the wounds of the Civil War. His mother was a suffragist and journalist who knew Theodore Roosevelt and worked with Military Intelligence in the First World War. The young Major himself was a rising star of the U.S. Cavalry who chased Pancho Villa, commanded the Buffalo Soldiers, rode with the Cossacks in Siberia, played championship polo, revolutionized the use of the machine gun in combat, served as a diplomatic attaché in Paris in 1919, and then lost it all when he stood up to his superiors to fight for racial justice in a segregated army. So he became a writer, and he and the beautiful Swedish aristocrat he had married shuttled between Greenwich Village and a villa in France as he turned his own life into a series of high adventure stories.
       He was, in short, a romantic, old-world hero of a type rapidly vanishing in twentieth-century America. But, as his contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

Two forces drove Wheeler-Nicholson lifelong: a belief in his own glittering destiny, nurtured in him by his powerful mother, and a terror of ending up like his father, broke, alone, and drinking himself to death. So he dreamed, he fought, and he overreached. He sacrificed his Cavalry career to a heroic but doomed crusade to reform the Army from within. Then, when he reinvented himself as a pulp-fiction writer and military historian, he found quickly that it wasn’t enough. He wanted to matter, to change the world. Perhaps to compensate for the shattering of his own visions of personal heroism, he made it his new mission to bring high culture to the masses and to make classic heroism relevant to the twentieth century.
       He founded the company that would become DC Comics, published the first true comic book, and pioneered the adaptation of serious novels into graphic form. He personally recruited and mentored the pioneer generation of comics artists, writers, and editors. He discovered the young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, taught them how to tell a graphic story, and, alone in the publishing world, encouraged their odd idea for a “Superman.” Then, just as their hero was poised to zoom into print—turning the new art form into a national craze, establishing the template for every superhero since, and creating the first youth-targeted industry in pop-culture history—his company was stolen from him in a back-room bankruptcy maneuver by that aforementioned gang of Lower East Side schlockmeisters.
       Even then the old Major had a last chance to remain at the helm of the medium he had created, but his own big dreams and tragic pride brought him down. He would not, or could not, make the compromises required by modern American business. He fought to keep everything and ended up with nothing. The men who took the business from him, who went on to build it into a corporate giant, took credit for what he had done and recast him in the stories they told at the bar and in the boardroom as a buffoon and a blowhard.
       “The Old Man” returned quietly to the writer’s life and never tried to tell his side of the story. Unlike others in comics history who were eager to alert the world to their victimization, his old Anglo-Saxon code made his loss a source of shame to be buried and nursed in silenced. At the end of the 1940s, he took one last stab at the big time, teaching himself chemistry and developing patents for new paints that attracted significant Wall Street capital. But the wounds he had suffered were too deep, and at the last minute, to the shock and outrage of his children, he could not bring himself to sign a deal.    

       The Major was buried in 1965 in a grave that would not bear a headstone for another forty-five years. The legend of the fortune he had allowed to slip away shaped his family’s self-understanding for two generations to come. In the years after he died, comic books arrived at their first acceptability as subjects of scholarship, and the first amateur historians began to piece together the history of the field. Historians, fans, and a new generation of writers and artists launched campaigns on behalf of comics’ creative pioneers—most famously Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer and artist of Superman—to restore the credit and rights that had been stolen from them by the same gang who had stolen the business from Wheeler-Nicholson. But even to the people who drove those campaigns, the Major continued to be nothing but a fragmentary, slightly ridiculous figure who flitted inconsequentially through the story of the industry’s first years.
       That story was incomplete, though, not only factually but thematically. Because the natures of the comic book industry, the icon of the superhero, and the artistic capacity of the graphic novel cannot adequately be explained by the usual “born spontaneously of immigrant fantasies and Depression desperation” narrative. Those vital fantasies were the driving forces of the new field, but the comics were able to capture a mass audience and survive their historical moment because they were also given form by another body of ideas, ideas brought by a man who had traveled the world in service of an ideal of heroism then fading into twilight. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was the missing link of pop-culture evolution, essential to the story but lost to time. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Coast to Coast in 100 Years

On May 15, 1915, a caravan of five automobiles containing publicity agents, a film crew, and miscellaneous merchants of cars and car products set out from New York City with one long, linear mission: to travel the length of the new Lincoln Highway, through forests and deserts, over mountains and rivers, to San Francisco on the far edge of the nation. Before this highway (which had first been conceived of by some of the men in those cars), there had been no designated, passable auto route across the United States.
     There were no federal roads then, and not that many state roads, so this was a private-sector enterprise. A bunch of businessmen with stakes in the future of auto travel—guys who sold radiators or spark plugs or rubber tires—formed the Lincoln Highway Association to encourage local businesses and governments to improve certain lengths of road that, when all hooked together, would form a twisty but clear line from Times Square to Lincoln Park. (Lincoln Park was hardly San Francisco’s equivalent of Times Square, being a grassy hilltop surrounded by a golf course on the far side of the city, doing service not long before that as a cemetery, so I assume they chose it for the “Lincoln” part.)

     The vision of these men was for a smooth, safe ribbon of rock and concrete all the way, but they were willing to settle for dirt roads through the trackless wastes of the West, as long as the cars of the time could get from one end of the other without breaking an axle or sinking into the sand. It proved to be a very popular idea among people who ran hotels and restaurants in smaller cities and towns across the middle of the country, as well as ambitious men who were thinking of jumping into the very profitable automobile craze, and pretty soon those roads were being worked on.
      The idea and the approximate route of this highway had been announced in 1913, so the Lincoln Highway Association celebrated its centennial last year, with speeches and car shows and fireworks and all that. But as I read about it, I couldn’t help feeling that if I were were going to commemorate the moment when the highway came into being (if, mind you), I’d celebrate the moment when people proved they could actually traverse its whole route.        
     There is an argument for dating that too in 1913. A group of intrepid members of this L.H.A. had pushed their way by automobile all the way across the country even before the project had been officially announced, to prove it could be done, block out a plausible route, and attract some reporters to the launching ceremony. But their cars had to be hauled out of ditches and mud several times by mules, and a few times they had to go far off what would eventually be the actual route because there was no way to get through where they wanted to—and therefore I’d call their effort an impressive one on its merits but not the inauguration of anything you would call a highway.
      So the day I would celebrate (like I say, if) would be the one when that caravan full of highway boosters and filmmakers finally arrived at Lincoln Park (after stopping at the Panama-Pacific Exposition then dominating the city, which made it an even better publicity stunt), August 25, 1915.

      (If you do the math, you’ll see that no one was trying to prove anything yet about the speed of car travel. The caravan covered roughly 3,300 miles in 102 days, so about 32 miles a day. A strong hiker with good boots could almost have beaten them. It must be remembered, though, that they spent much of the voyage giving speeches at Rotary Club meetings, shaking the hands of hoteliers and tire dealers, and shooting scenes for their planned promotional movie. They assured people that the trip neednt actually take more than two weeks, which made it only about four times slower than the train.)
      No one would claim that their trip was a historical turning point, but it does work as a symbol of some major changes then coming to America. Most obviously, it stands at the beginning of the age of the automobile. But it also represents a new force for turning the sprawling states into a single nation, and a further opening of the vast American interior, beyond what the ribbons of the railroads had done, giving every turnout along every road the chance to compete for tourists and residents with every other wannabe town and city.

     And it shows the birth of a new sort of American boosterism, and with it a way of launching and organizing new industries—businesses, publicists, and consumers collaborating to create a spiraling energy of trendiness and profitability—that’s shaped much of our business culture straight into the age of personal technology. There were no robber barons in the highway-building business. The highway system would make an awful lot of money for the companies that built cars, made their parts, forged steel, vulcanized latex, and distilled gasoline, but their profits were indirect. In the actual making of the roads, the people who made the immediate money were gravel-quarry owners, asphalt mixers, bridge builders, and the adventurers who thought opening a gas station would be more rewarding than selling horse feed.
     There’s personal symbolism for me in that highway, too. I’ve participated in the general affection for Route 66, but really, it doesn’t touch me much. It wound, after all, from Chicago to L.A., from one city I find impressive and interesting to another with which I’m weirdly fascinated, but neither of them feels like my city. San Francisco is my city, literally, and New York is the one I’ve carried a torch for since I was a teenager, the one I keep writing about, keep going back to, keep wondering if I should have moved to before I got too old.

      As if that weren’t enough, my mother grew up along the Lincoln Highway—in Rawlins, Wyoming in the 1920s and ‘30s, near the highest point of the route, where the highway itself was both the main street and the way out of town. I think it was in her reminiscences that I first heard the phrase “Lincoln Highway.” In any case, I know it was in her reminiscences that I first understood what highways meant to people growing up in the towns of the American interior. 
      (Come to think of it, my dad lived just a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway too, when he was very young, although on the far western end of it, as it passed along Foothill Boulevard in Oakland, where it wouldnt really have had the lustre of a transcontinental highway. Still, its intriguing to think of my parents connected by a road, a thousand miles apart, when they were little children.)
     If I were to do something to acknowledge the centennial of the first of those great highways (and I
’m still clinging to if, but barely), I would set out from Times Square on May 15 of next year and travel for the next 102 days along what remains of the original route, studying its history and immersing myself in the towns it helped bring into existence.          
      And if I were to try to justify the trip to myself and have a chance of covering the costs, I’d write a book about it. Not just a historical tour of the highway—there are already a couple of those, and they’re good—but some way of using the journey as a lens through which to consider how the past hundred years of cars, business, growth, and mobility have shaped the country. And through that to understand a bit better how I, as the son of a daughter of that highway, have been shaped by it too.     
      That gives me nearly a year to figure out whether this is a clever idea or a crazy one. Either way, I’m probably going to do it.