Gil and I thought we would take to the road on the trail of Fanny Trollope’s wanderings across America. My imagination itched to conjure up the Jacksonian past of the juvenile nation, which she wrote about so incisively in Domestic Manners of the Americans. It would be an in-depth look at the landscape Fanny Trollope found when she went among us, using her words as a jumping off point to explore a strange, exciting, transformative period in America.But I wanted to see these places in the present, too. I planned to call my book A Dangerous Subject, which lifted a phrase from Domestic Manners. Trollope employs it to describe the sprawl and spectacle of America, so overwhelming that it can barely be contained in language. The phrase could apply equally to the woman herself, or to any woman who dares to step outside accepted boundaries. As her contemporary Jane Austen wryly noted in Northanger Abbey, a woman “if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”
Fanny always based her criticism in solid observation. I planned for my book to be in part a travelogue assessing the current American landscape. I would talk with all kinds of people, all across the spectrum of beliefs. I wanted to find out what’s really going on in all of the red state cloud-cuckoo lands. But I would settle for taking the temperature of those states on Fanny’s itinerary: Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and New York. I was particularly interested in examining the extensive Southern part of her circuit, as my family’s roots lie in Virginia, Maryland and Tennessee. What Fanny saw there was quite possibly what my great-great-greats were experiencing.
John Steinbeck, when he embarked on the circuit of the United States chronicled in Travels with Charley, rigged up a 1960 GMC truck with a camper for the journey. I thought I would be more rigorous about the truth in my narrative than Steinbeck’s hugely popular though largely fictionalized account. Like Charley. at its heart A Dangerous Subject would be a first-person narrative that attempts “to find out what Americans are like” (as Steinbeck announced his purpose), to portray, as they say about family, “the strangers you happen to be related to.”
If anyone would give me an advance to write it.