Wanderlust: rootlessness and restlessness in American culture, 1950-1970
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Historian Ray Billington, in arguing that the "migratory compulsion" in Americans is partly the result of the influence of the frontier on American history, claims: "If students of the American character can agree upon any one thing, it is that the compulsion to move about has created a nation of restless wanderers unlike any other in the world." In this paper I explore manifestations of that "migratory compulsion," a rootlessness and restlessness that I call "wanderlust," in American movies, television, music, literature, and politics during the 1950s and 1960s. Wanderlust and the hero-wanderer were recurring cultural ideas during those years. The hero-wanderer appeared in three similar but distinct guises during the period: as the aimless wanderer (Dean in Jack Kerouac's On the Road), as the explorer-wanderer (for example, the astronaut sent to the moon), and as the observer-wanderer (John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley: In Search of America). All three display the desire for mobility and the disdain for rootedness that define wanderlust. The more significant issue underlying their mobility and wanderlust is always the relationship between the individual and community. Manifestations of wanderlust reveal the way Americans from 1950-1970 valued the individual and the community. Expressions of wanderlust did not change in any significant ways from the fifties to the sixties, and thus provide a constant theme for two decades that are usually viewed by historians as widely different. Ultimately, Americans during both decades displayed an ambivalent attitude toward wanderlust. The wandering, non-conformist hero is glorified during both decades, but never without reservations. While Americans tend to lionize strong non-conformist individuals in literature, film, music, and politics, they also recognize the limitations of such individualism.
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Includes bibliographical references (leaves 56-60).
Lepine, Amy (2003). Wanderlust: rootlessness and restlessness in American culture, 1950-1970. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from