An American Romance

Edward Mendelson

  • Old Glory: An American Voyage by Jonathan Raban
    Collins, 527 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 00 216521 X
  • No particular place to go by Hugo Williams
    Cape, 200 pp, £6.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 224 01810 8

Old Glory – the book written by Jonathan Raban – is an altogether different book from the Old Glory that was praised in the reviews, but it is no less wonderful for that. The book the reviewers wrote about does not exist at all, except as the ghost of an intention. This phantasmal Old Glory is the book which Raban originally planned to write, and which he expected would be little more than an elegant travel diary: the record of a passive drifting journey down the Mississippi in the track of Huckleberry Finn. As he reports in the first chapter of the published version, he dreamed, long before he set out, that

the book and the journey would be all of a piece. The plot would be written by the current of the river itself. Where the river meandered, so would the book, and when the current speeded up into a narrow chute, the book would follow it. Everything would be left to chance.

Even the reviewers who most liked what they thought they were reading complained that a book of this sort, like the Mississippi itself, has a tendency to sprawl shapelessly and go on too long. In this, the reviewers were entirely correct. The Old Glory that Raban dreamed of writing, the book he hoped ‘would be haphazard and full of randomness’, would indeed have been as slow and sprawling as they said. That, presumably, is why he didn’t write it.

The book he wrote instead is exceedingly shapely and controlled, and not tedious in the least. Raban, who calls himself ‘incorrigibly bookish’ (he alludes more than once to his days as a university lecturer in English), took the form of his book less from the river than from other books. His model was the quest-romance, especially in its Renaissance versions, but he borrowed elements from heroic legends of all ages. ‘A journey which had all the essential features of a myth’: this is his description of a journey reported to him by a woman he met along the way. ‘It explained to her who she was, in exactly the same way that the epic stories of immigration had defined the identity of her ancestors. I told her about my own journey,’ he continues, ‘and how I saw it as really the same American story.’ It is also, as he presents it, the more ancient and universal story of the hero who makes a dangerous quest to restore fertility to the waste land. The enemy of this hero is traditionally a sea-creature, a Leviathan or Charybdis; he risks death by water in order to regain the waters of life. Raban’s quest begins in the psychological wastes of London, where everyone he meets is trapped in arid self-satisfaction, and he himself is unable to write. ‘In London, I had gone stale and dry.’ Setting out for the renewing waters of his childhood dreams, he passes through the Minnesota State Fair (a hybrid of Vanity Fair and Langland’s ‘fair field full of folk’), then rents a small boat and casts off into the Mississippi. His first descent in a lock seems ‘a kind of symbolic induction, a rite of passage into my new state as a river traveller’. Armed with warnings and apparatus, he makes his way through a variety of perils and temptations. At the exact centre of the book he survives a night battle with the powers of darkness. Having passed this test, he gradually recovers the social and sexual community he had lost or renounced when he began. Eventually he is received with proper ceremony into the band of heroes who followed the same route before him. In the end, his success is incomplete, but the ways in which he fails are all explicit variants of the basic myth. As Raban’s journey imitates the heroic mythical journeys it cannot equal, it continually recollects their archaic splendour and ancient fame. ‘Old Glory’, in this book, means far more than a pattern of stars and stripes.

At the centre of a quest romance is a night journey, a descent into a phantom realm of chaos and death; typically, the descent is preceded by a threatening omen. In Old Glory, just before Raban makes his one rash attempt to navigate the river by night, a band of vultures rises from a dead tree and spirals murderously towards his boat. He tries to frighten them off with a foghorn, but they still circle above him, ‘croaking nastily’. Then, abruptly, they go back, leaving him to make his way alone to greater dangers. There is an analogue of this scene in the Aeneid, where the Harpies warn the Trojans away from Crete, and another in The Faerie Queene, when Guyon and his shipmates are crossing the sea:

Suddeinly an innumerable flight
Of harmefull fowles about them fluttering, cride,
And with their wicked wings them oft did smight,
And sore annoyèd, groping in that griesly night.

(These avian warnings derive ultimately from the bird auguries of ancient myth.) Raban hears later that the vultures that followed him ‘never cross the state line. They’ll fly out to mid-channel, and the moment they touch Iowa, they’ll turn back.’ As Faust and the Inferno testify, even the most powerful demonic forces cannot move beyond certain arbitrary borders.

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