Editor’s note: WORLD’s Warren Cole Smith will spend the month of June as scholar-in-residence at Summit Ministries, a Christian worldview training ministry located in Manitou Springs, Colorado. He has decided to exchange a three-hour plane ride for a 1,500-mile (one way) road trip, meeting with writers, musicians, WORLD readers, and other interesting people along the way. This is the first of his dispatches from the road.
Just about every writer worth his (or her) salt has taken the novel-writer’s equivalent of a swing for the fences, an attempt at The Great American Novel. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has come as close to a grand-slam home run as we have so far seen, in part because of the book’s final scene, in which Huck, in fear of being “civilized,” resolves to “light out for the territory.”
In that one phrase, Mark Twain summed up the American experience. This impulse to “light out,” or the actual fact of “lighting out” has informed our best literature. William Bradford’s Mayflower Compact (1620), William Bartram’s Travels (1791), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Huckleberry Finn (1884) itself have all been stories about the West.
Over the years, what was “the West” is has changed. For Bradford, it was America’s shore. For others, it was the Appalachians, then the Mississippi River, and finally the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But what never changed was this: The West was always about about men (and women) who stood at the edge of their known world—and took one step more.
But what happens when the frontier disappears, when the territory becomes settled? When even Huck Finn, eyes darting in desperation, finds no territory to which to light? William Faulkner faced that question, and redefined the answer. The real frontier territory is the heart, what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
“Only that is worth writing about,” Faulkner said when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
So what does the heart of America look like? Such a question, as the Bible says, “is too wonderful for me. It is high. I cannot attain it.” (Psalms 139:4) But I strive, and what follows is some of that striving.
So let the journey begin.