The Happy
American Traveler

What We Mean When We Talk Travel

by Kate Figgins


“As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome. An insect on a dead thing.”

— David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”


In 2004, David Foster Wallace was commissioned by Gourmet magazine to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. Famously dedicating the piece to the life and death of the dinner instead of festival fodder, Wallace makes a criticism too often ignored. The mythology of travel (that you can insert yourself in spaces foreign and come out renewed) exists to mask the truth of travel as something hollow for the consumer and deadly for the consumed. It happens this way because it was written this way. Travel exists in the States to enact the capitalist-colonialist mission of unfettered expansion.

Travel (or “tourism,” the distinction is irrelevant) is the act of leaving home to see somewhere new. We laud those who do it and shame those who can’t (we’re publicly embarrassed that just a third of Americans hold passports). At the Maine Lobster Festival, we boil, crack, suck, and swallow lobster flesh and, through digestion, absorb the character of New England.1

We all know this behavior. We’re guilty of it ourselves. Like proper citizens, we pack into tour groups, file onto cruise ships, and take off. I myself am preparing for a trip to Thailand and am haunted by the image of myself, the wealthy Western woman, come to buy my own corner of the Thai experience. After all, I am going there to experience that. As much as we’d like to argue it, most Americans know nothing like hordes of racial and linguistic “others” flooding their cities with disproportionate amounts of money.

And why should we? It is generally accepted as fundamental to our character as Americans that we go in search. Travel can teach, right? Travel can enlighten? It’s a sentiment I encountered a lot when backpacking the USA alone, frequently praised for doing what many hosts and one particular bar fly referred to as having “the cojones to just go.” If the Happy American Traveler, as I’ve just this second deemed him, sees the contradictions inherent in “the trip,” he’s too ashamed to admit it. Escaping to find oneself? Leaving a life in order to feel alive again?

Most of us have internalized travel as an individual expenditure and have left ourselves willfully ignorant to the fact that the call to travel is far from inherent. The “spirit of the pioneer” has been indoctrinated into American consciousness for centuries and for specific reason — a citizenry inclined to seek out is good for a nation looking to expand.

The first time Americans heard the cry “Let us conquer space,” it was not from Kennedy, but John C. Calhoun who, in 1816, pled Congress to approve federal homesteaders’ aid in the Ohio Valley. Post Civil War, when the wealthy still searched Europe for cultural stimulation, the federal government started the “See America First” program to encourage travel spending at home. Thirty years later, as a part of FDR’s Depression-era work programs, 6,000 writers were federally employed to write the largest travel-book series in US history The American Guide Series. And by the 1960s, President Johnson was calling Americans to “See the USA”, an initiative nursed by and benefiting the US auto and gas lobbies.

On one hand, travel is lauded as fundamentally American and freeing. On the other, it is highly prescriptive.

The contradiction lies, specifically, in how we are told one travels. Buy the food. Buy the postcard. Buy into what the Encyclopedia of American History refers to as “superficial pleasure, contrived landscapes, and passive consumption.” Americans didn’t invent this, of course, but we have reproduced it, willingly, and enthusiastically. “We need this land for our people” becomes “people! enjoy this land!”

Not that would-be travelers are conscious of any of this. If my Pinterest homepage is accurate, most people are dreaming simply of serenity — a kind of corporate desperation frequently exploited in advertising (a recent campaign by Costa Rica Tourism titled “Save the Americans” features nature itself cooing you paradise).

Travel cannot be simply leaving home to purchase experiences to put on mantels. It must be baring yourself to the truths of the world and, likely, your privileged place in it.

In this search for serenity, most of us have accepted what we recognize is a frequently fruitless exercise. We remember the filmy shame that covered us as we stood in line, literally a number, at Graceland or the Pyramids of Gaza, but anything is better than the cubicle, right?

Anything is better than the cubicle.

I imagine this is how David Foster Wallace felt when, paid to sit in the middle of a flock of festival-goers, sweaty and stinking, he wrote this most memorable digression on travel. It’s a footnote. Number 6, paragraph two of “Consider the Lobster”:

“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful.”

For the record, I don’t think all hope is lost.

Wallace was reeling from the contrivance of a nationally-attended, locally branded convention — and, of course, from the innocent lobster lives masochistically sacrificed in the name of “local fare” — but I don’t think his issue was really with lobsters or their consumption or even with their consumption, in public, for money. Wallace was comparing the “how” of becoming cultured at a food festival with the “how” of eating lobster. Both are consumption. Both can be ravenous and unconscionable. And neither, when you really take them at face, brings much joy. At least not the ways we’re doing them now.

If any cultural experience is to be a genuine one, it first has to be stripped of the national, expansionist, and culturally-colonialist directive under which it was first imagined. Travel can better a person, of course. In my experience, it’s one of the only remedies for that pig-headed defense of one’s way of life above all else. But that kind of cultural-exposure, to be effective, has to happen between equals. Travel cannot be simply leaving home to purchase experiences to put on mantels. It must be baring yourself to the truths of the world and, likely, your privileged place in it.

We could continue to feast on other cultures in order to bolster our own (there is no denying that the global tourism industry is already catered to “Western” language, tastes and income brackets), but I wish we wouldn’t. Truly. To buy into the guise of the Happy American Traveler, so obsessed with getting his own happiness, is to forget the fundamental sameness of humans. It’s to deny ourselves an opportunity for real growth in the face of temporary enjoyment.

Summer, I’m told, is here. Instead of wondering where we’ll go, let’s wonder how.


Kate Figgins is a writer and director interested in the intersections of ideology
and reality. She’s currently directing
America! America?,
a documentary web-series about nationalism at home.


Just Words

Writers, artists, and thinkers celebrating David Foster Wallace. A publication from A24 and the upcoming film THE END OF THE TOUR.

    The End of the Tour

    Written by

    Upcoming film starring Jason Segel & Jesse Eisenberg. Based on the book ‘And Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace’.

    Just Words

    Writers, artists, and thinkers celebrating David Foster Wallace. A publication from A24 and the upcoming film THE END OF THE TOUR.

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