Maybe it’s these “tough economic times” we keep hearing about, or Ken Burns’s latest documentary on our country’s greatest idea, or even the fervent debate on health-care reform: but it feels like everyone is eagerly trying to define America. Not the United States, or the U.S.A but America, in its glorious, romantic connotation.
I’m not sure writer Thomas Hummel and photographer Tamra Dempsey attempted a definition in their new project titled A Journey Through Literary America, but they certainly succeeded in living, and capturing, one of America’s defining features: the journey itself.
One dog named Sherpa, two years, and 20,000 miles after embarking upon the oldest of American traditions, they’ve created a beautiful coffee-table book that combines a stirring narrative of America’s literary heritage with fantastic, sweeping photographs of places that inspired American authors.
“For the last 12 years, I’ve been thinking about a coffee-table book that hasn’t been done,” said Hummel, who came up with the idea for the book. “While I was reading American Pastoral, I realized Phillip Roth had some vivid descriptions of places in Newark, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a photo essay on the places authors wrote about, accompanied by the words they used to write about them?’”
A phone call to Dempsey later, and a mere essay quickly evolved into a list of 50 favorite American authors, which was then scaled back to a more feasible group of 26 who “all had something to say about America,” explained Hummel.
Hummel spent the better part of a year flying all over the country on the weekends, researching writers and their hometowns for his own contributions to the text, and compiling a short list for Dempsey.
Armed with only a Canon D5 and a black lab named Sherpa, Dempsey then set out on the road with her fiancee in an Airstream Interstate. For three months they explored America, starting in Santa Barbara and making a clockwise journey up to Washington, across the Midwest, up into New England, down the East Coast, and to Georgia, then through Mississippi, Nebraska, and Colorado.
“We were traveling constantly, and had maybe 24 to 48 hours, at most, in each location,” said Dempsey. “We just showed up; we didn’t set anything up in advance. We shot with available light under all sorts of conditions.”