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Thumbing a ride on America's 'Revolutionary Road'

January 26, 2009
On my bookshelf, there's an old copy of Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road." The cover illustration shows a pristine countryside with puffy white clouds on an azure sky. Above the hills floats a stoppered glass jar. Inside, a woman stands before a house and church, her arms crossed, impatient. Outside, a man climbs toward her on a ladder.

With a film version now in theaters, "Revolutionary Road" is garnering new attention. The timing couldn't be better, because the societal struggles Yates confronts in his novel are as relevant today as they were when protagonist April Wheeler appeared in a botched 1955 production of "The Petrified Forest."

April and her husband, Frank, are Connecticut suburbanites who fancy themselves superior to their world. As the blurb on the back of the new paperback explains, the Wheelers "have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But now that certainty is about to crumble."

Crumbling assumptions of greatness and certainty? Can you say, "U.S. of A. circa 2009"?

In a 1972 interview, Yates said of his novel: "I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the '50s there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs—a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price ...

"Many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that—felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit ... I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the '50s."

Fast-forward to inauguration week, when our new president issued a similar shatter-the-glass-jar, return-to-our-revolutionary-roots, break-free-from-the-petrified-forest call to arms.

"All deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness," said President Obama. But "greatness is never a given. It must be earned."

"Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less," he said. "It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."

He called on us to end "worn-out dogmas," to avoid "standing pat." He chided "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

He said, "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

So what does that look like—a "remade" America in a new age? How do we throw off complacency? How do we chart a return to our revolutionary road?

In his inaugural address, Obama spoke of "risk-takers" and "doers." He used words like "inventive" and "curiosity" and "new."

"Our challenges may be new," he said. "The instruments with which we meet them may be new."

He also warned us of thinking we can climb back into our glass jars. "What the cynics fail to understand," he said, "is that the ground has shifted beneath them."

Indeed it has. So, rather than being merely "makers of things," we, like our new president, must be inventive, curious, risk-taking imaginers of possibilities.

There were dueling articles in The New York Times last week about the value of teaching and learning ideas-not for immediate monetary gain, but to spark and fuel sustained revolutionary thinking.

On the one hand, professor Stanley Fish lamented the downfall of liberal-arts learning in favor of career-driven coursework.

He said, "The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment."

He said this downfall has been a long time coming, quoting industrialist Richard Teller Crane as having said in 1911 that "No one who has 'a taste for literature has the right to be happy' because 'the only men entitled to happiness ... are those who are useful.'"

On the other hand, New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani wrote about the influence of books on Barack Obama.

"Throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others—as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame," Kakutani wrote, "This notion of self-creation is a deeply American one—a founding principle of this country ... and it seems to exert a strong hold on Mr. Obama's imagination."

She said Obama has been especially influenced by Abraham Lincoln. "In a 2005 essay in Time magazine, [Obama] wrote of the humble beginnings that he and Lincoln shared, adding that the 16th president reminded him of 'a larger, fundamental element of American life-the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams.'"

Precisely where April Wheeler fell short, and where Obama and the rest of us must succeed. 

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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