American history is largely based on conquests and redefining the Frontier. The American identity has been shaped by women and men on the go, ready to fulfil their dreams and craving for adventure and freedom.
I) Forging a nation
1) A new identity
In 1804, the Louisiana Territory purchase from France led President Thomas Jefferson to commission the Lewis and Clark expedition. After a two-year journey, the two explorers managed to reach the Pacific Coast providing new geographical, ecological and social information about previously uncharted areas of North America. They gave a detailed account of their journey and discoveries in their Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
This expedition paved the way to the westward expansion. The Manifest Destiny expressed the belief that the Americans were destined by God to spread civilisation over the continent and became its driving force. By the mid-19th century a shift of population (déplacement de population) took place, millions of settlers decided to try their luck and headed West.
2) Life on the Frontier
Expecting easy fortune and an adventurous life in the West, many families took advantage of the Homestead Act and became land owners known as homesteaders. But as the territory was often unknown and peopled by Natives defending their land, frontiersmen had to face many dangers.
The Homestead Act (1862) enabled settlers to get land in the West for free, provided they built a home and improved the property for five years.
James Fenimore Cooper depicted life on the Frontier in his novels, but his greatest gift was in conveying the image of prototypical American landscapes of forests, lakes, and prairies, and of the free men who lived there. He thus introduced Americans to their own Frontier. His most important work, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) portrays white and Native American interactions.
II) Hitting the road: a thirst for freedom
1) Escaping conventions
Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957) is based on his travels across the US and is considered a defining work of the Beat generation.
The Beat generation: young people in the 1950s who rejected literary formalism, and materialism. They valued all types of explorations.
It inspired generations of readers, writers and artists to take the road for existential or even spiritual journeys of their own. “The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. America is a country of immigrants whose history is irrevocably linked to that of the road.
But in the 1950s it was the quest for non-conformity that appealed to people, and the need to rebel. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, away from society’s expectations.
2) Looking for their American dream
The cult “road movie” Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) is also an ode to freedom. Two freewheeling motorcyclists are riding on decorated Harley-Davidson choppers across a conformist and corrupt America. The movie highlights the sociological changes the American society underwent at the time.
Rather than travelling westward on horses as the frontiersmen did, the two modern-day cowboys travel eastward from Los Angeles – the end of the traditional Frontier – to New Orleans, on an epic journey into the unknown looking for their “American dream”.