“Shoulder to Shoulder and Heart to Heart:” On the Road with Whitman, Steinbeck, and Springsteen

Kelsey Healey

The tradition of the road narrative has long been a part of American culture.  Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, and Bruce Springsteen are three iconic writers who have worked in this tradition to discuss the American experience. Interestingly, while the image of the road is often associated with a lone traveler or bold individualism, Whitman, Steinbeck, and Springsteen have also used the road as the center of their stories about community and convergence.
The road narratives of Whitman, Steinbeck, and Springsteen develop a sense of community that is both social and spiritual, and is rooted in a kind of protest that identifies unity as a vital part of the solution to social ills.

In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman characterizes the road as an equalizer, used by everyone.  He talks about the different people who travel the same road, and invites the reader to travel with him; he creates a sense of community. This is fitting, as Whitman is often described as having aimed to create a “national literature” that would unite the new country in a shared sense of identity.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath makes a bold statement about community as well. Much of the book follows the Joads as they merge with other families out of necessity. The narrator describes the communities that emerge among the displaced people on the road. Most famously, in Tom Joad’s speech near the end of the novel, Tom asserts that “a man is no good by himself,” and embraces the idea that there is “one big soul everybody’s a part of.”

In addition, I will look at three of Springsteen’s songs, representative works from the early, middle, and recent years of his career: “Born to Run” (1975), “Land of Hope and Dreams” (1999) and “We Are Alive,” (2012).  These songs continue the tradition begun by Whitman and Steinbeck, both lyrically and formally. In addition to speaking about the same themes, Springsteen draws on various ethnic musical influences to comprise an even more inclusive message of unity.

Today, the call for solidarity and empathy seems as appropriate as ever. Together, these writers draw attention to the experience of the individual, but also the individual as part of something bigger than him/herself.  They each create a picture of the American experience that emphasizes the essential connection between “I am” and “we are.”


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