Editor’s Note: On the road and back again

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Jack Kerouac. Photo: Tom Palumbo. Jack Kerouac. Photo: Tom Palumbo.

Widely interpreted as a metaphor for J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal experience during World War I and afterwards, The Hobbit was originally published in 1937 with the alternative title There and Back Again. A comfortable bourgeois man is vacuumed out of his house into a global struggle between good and evil, then returns to the shire changed for good.

About a million Englishmen died in the Great War, and only a few years later another generation went to war and came home again, changed. The story of ordinary men capable of extraordinary courage keeping a lid on their experiences as they sipped their tea became a defining cultural narrative.

The stories we tell ourselves are important. I once took a 20th century American literature class in which the professor, an English literary critic, said all of our country’s writing can be understood in relationship to its East-West axis, which operates both geographically and temporally. He saw it in The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and East of Eden.

Our paradise is in the future, in the West, where progress lies, but we are stuck mourning our past, which remains in the East. In the ’50s and ’60s Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, and The Beach Boys helped us construct a myth about hitting the road bound for the Pacific Coast, and, to a large degree, people followed it, despite Bob Dylan’s warnings. California may not be full, exactly, but as a dreamland it’s at capacity. A million people found their way to San Jose; three times that many have settled in the O.C.

This week’s feature tells the stories of men and women who grew up in Charlottesville and left in search of greener pastures, only to return home again to start businesses and families. It touches on the larger story of the Baby Boomer generation and their children, Gen X and Y-ers who are increasingly moving home again. Meet the Boomerangers. I suspect we’ll keep telling ourselves versions of this story until we can answer a deceptively simple question: How do you make progress without moving up and out?

  • Tommy Atkins

    Close enough. Total British military deaths (incl Royal Navy, and death from wounds immediately after the War) were about 800,000 but these would include Scots, Irish, Welsh AND Englishmen. Total Brit Empire deaths -reflecting the immense contribution of the Dominions and colonies to Britain’s war effort, were close to your million figure.

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