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.”
Dempsey’s interest in the project came, in part, from her father, who “always had a huge appreciation for America,” she said. “When we were kids he took us out of school for six or eight months and we traveled, visiting all but three states. We really learned a lot, traveling that way.”
And though Dempsey and Hummel experienced America separately, they still shared the experience. “You feel the same thing that inspired the writers,” explained Hummel.
One example of this commonality centers on a photograph Dempsey took in Sherwood Anderson’s hometown of Clyde, Ohio. “There’s a scene in Winesburg, Ohio where George Willard goes for a walk at night. He walks by a picket fence and stops underneath a streetlight, and I told Tamra that I wanted that shot,” said Hummel. She got the shot – a beautiful, dark photograph overlaid with Anderson’s famous words.
And though we Americans continually try to define our namesake, our patriotism, our ideals, and ourselves, Dempsey may have already pinpointed what makes us distinctly American: “I found that most of these authors had a real appreciation for their hometown. What they wrote about well was what they knew. We’re always searching for something different to explore, when most of the time it’s right where we already are.”
Thomas Hummel and Tamra Dempsey will be signing A Journey Through Literary America at Chaucer’s Books Saturday, October 10, at 3 p.m. Learn more about their project and their journey at literaryamerica.net.