In case you haven't guessed, the inspiration for this post is the Simon and Garfunkle song America, the cover of which by Josh Groban came up on my Pandora station. I think both of them are worth a listen. In fact, I am considering doing a post consisting of nothing but wonderful songs that I have been listening to recently, so as to avoid continuing to clutter my Facebook posts with such things. Of course, I don't have the musical mastery necessary to focus on examining songs as is wonderfully done over at Sounds Like Japan, but I make do with what I know.
Anyway, on to America. In my interpretation, the song details the journey of a couple of poor, young lovers who set out to look for America, but end up disenchanted in the end. I suppose the first question that occurs is, what is the America for which they are looking?
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now." I can glance out my window and look at part of the geographical "America," and currently am doing so. But, if they left Pittsburgh to look for America, it seems clear that their search is for more than the physical entity of America. Furthermore, their search in Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, rather than Washington DC seems to indicate that America is something different than the formal nation-state, which I will call the United States to denote the difference. Their modes of transportation, struggle for cigarettes, and penchant for keeping their real estate in a bag point to a certain level of economic insecurity, but their exploits evidence no effort to hoard wealth, so it seems that "economic success" is not the America for which they are looking in the strictest sense.
What is left is the impression that they are looking for the spirit, or essence, of America, in some sense. In that case their decision to look in Michigan, at that time emblematic of American ingenuity and industrial supremacy, and New York, arguably the cultural center of America, seems more reasonable.
A search for what America means must necessarily, to Americans, be simultaneously a search for personal meaning. Consequentially, their inability to find America leads to a corresponding loss of self, "Kathy I'm lost... I'm empty and I'm aching and I don't know why." Without overarching context for his life, the narrator is left with the vague feeling that something ought be different, but does not even have the reference frame from which to determine what form that difference should take.
As the narrator is alienated from himself, he is also alienated from society at large, "counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike, and they've all come to look for America," and from his companion Kathy. Contrast the lyrics at the beginning, "Kathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh," with the later line, "Kathy I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping." The inter-relational activity of communication has become replaced by a facsimile where the author is no longer heard by Kathy.
Of course, as the narrator observes, the search for America is one in which we must all participate if we wish to find ourselves. The scope of the search, and the intractability of the problem, need not be instruments of alienation, as there is a certain amount of comfort, along with the despair, in the notion that none of us truly finds America, and we must continually drive the turnpikes of our search. Finally, we can narrow our search, even if we never actually find America. We know we search for the America that ought be, something non-geographical, non-political, which provides our lives as American's with proper context.