Last January, I attended a writing residency in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I was five miles from Christ of the Ozarks, a 65-foot, 340-ton statue erected in 1966 by Gerald L.K. Smith, who had been an organizer for populist demagogue Huey Long. Tom Zoellner's new essay collection, The National Road, explores this kind of Americana, peeking into corners few of us get to see.
Zoellner teaches at Chapman and Dartmouth Colleges, serves as politics editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, and is the author and coauthor of seven previous books. To say he is well-traveled is to say cheetahs run fast. Zoellner has logged tens of thousands of miles zigzagging the continent with a small tent, backpack, and hiking boots. His book is a fascinating investigation into American places and themes; metaphors for our country.
Zoellner visits Spillville, Iowa where Czech composer Antonin Dvořák spent the summer of 1893, penning his famed Symphony No. 9, From the New World. Dvořák's Bohemian countrymen had been "the poorest of the poor" from Písek, Tábor, and Budějovice. Forty years later in Iowa, they were "very well off."
Today, Spillville's residents are anxious about immigration—whether they're for it or against it. Zoellner has a beer with a supervisor for a horse trailer manufacturer who remarks, "We've gotten selfish and stuck-up....The American Dream is eroding, and it is scary."
In the title chapter, Zoellner notes that President Thomas Jefferson authorized the construction of a highway in 1806. Where roads go, Zoellner writes, commerce follows. He travels a "national road of dollar stores," touching on the opioid epidemic and bearing witness to economic degradation in America's small towns. Nice (California) may be pronounced like the city on the French Riviera, but in this bygone resort, Dollar General is the place to shop for "dish soap, tuna fish, bread, and Coors Light." Zoellner examines the rise and fall of Dollar General's predecessors: family owned department stores; grocery chains such as A&P; and five and dimes—Woolworth's and progeny.