From James Fenimore Cooper through Toni Morrison, American Literature features themes that appear again and again in different guises.
One theme is interracial bosom friendship, which is much more common in American literature than in American life. Before the Revolution, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook roam the wilderness of the eastern seaboard battling bloodthirsty tribes and rescuing damsels. Later, Ishmael and Queequeg circumnavigate the seven seas in pursuit of the great white whale while Huck and Jim drift down the Mississippi encountering scalawags at every bend of the river. And let’s not forget about the Lone Ranger and Tonto thundering forever westward on the backs of Silver and Scout.
Tall tales constitute another motif in the American canon in exaggerated heroes like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Occasionally, more serious works incorporate characteristics of tall tales, as in Faulkner’s magnificent story “The Bear” where Sam Fathers, an ancient native American, teaches young white Ike McCaslin the ways of the woods. Each year, the generations of Jefferson’s menfolk have hunted for Old Ben, a seemingly immortal bear of mythic proportions. Old Ben remains unvanquished until the hunters encounter and half tame a wild airedale mix that might well give Cerberus, the Hound of Hades, a dog-whipping. Alas, Ben’s killing, so long sought after, depresses his pursuers, marks the end of an era, because Ben himself had become synonymous with the wilderness. The old days are done. Farewell, country store; hail Walmart.
Indeed, the wilderness itself represents the most constant motif in American literature, and even as early as The Leatherstocking Tales, it is beginning to vanish, “the doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with axes and plows who feared it because it was wilderness.”
As children growing up in Summerville, South Carolina, we Twin Oaks kids enjoyed acres and acres of woods where we built forts, played cowboys and Indians, and acquired chiggers. Of course, those woods were also doomed, their trees eventually felled, replaced by ranch-styled three-bedroom houses with lawns of centipede and Bermuda.
Along with Salisbury Acres and the Tea Farm, Twin Oaks was one of the earliest
settlements subdivisions, and as other housing developments sprung up, more and more of the woods within and surrounding Summerville disappeared. By the time I was in high school, much of it was gone, except for a large tract of undeveloped land behind Newington Plantation, an old phosphorous or sand-mining site we called “the Clay Pits.”
The “Clay Pits” with its ponds and crisscrossing dirt roads provided a refuge for crazy mixed-up kids seeking a secluded spot for, as we called it back then, “making out” or adventures as we rode motorcycles back and forth on the rutted dirt roads and camped out among the loblolly pines. Although we didn’t realize it, our carefree days were receding as rapidly as the woods in and around Summerville.
In fact, it was on one of these campouts in the Clay Pits that I first dropped LSD. It was the night of my 18th birthday, and let me assure you, a good time was not had by all. That December night marked the end of my childhood. It was not an adventure that Tom Sawyer might enjoy, but a misadventure, a depressing sequence of hapless events more suited for a documentary on social decline than a celebration of youthful exuberance.
To protect the guilty, I’ll change the names in “Dear Abby” fashion. There were “Farley,” “Micky,” “Marty,” and “Ian.” Farley had acquired four hits of the same variety of acid and one hit of something called “Czechoslovakian Cherry,” which I unfortunately ingested.
After an hour or so, everyone but me had gotten off and was oohing and aahing at phantasms invisible while I shivered forlornly in the cold. Farley suggested we take a drive within the Clay Pit confines, which would at least provide some warmth, and it was during that drive that I first started feeling the effects. While the Hollies’ hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” – a song I didn’t particularly like – was playing on the radio, an electrical rush of sensation shivered up my spine.
Back at the campsite, suddenly I found myself in the throes of harrowing hallucinations and felt overwhelmed, only to discover that my girlfriend and her best friend had sneaked out of their houses and ridden their bikes to the campsite. Under normal circumstances, I’d be delighted, but my girlfriend’s appearance filled me with dread that her mother would discover her disappearance and track us down somehow. At one point as we lay on my sleeping bag, it felt as if a gigantic boulder was crushing me.
Eventually, the boulder lifted, my girlfriend and her friend pedaled off, and my paranoia abated. At one point Ian said to me, “Look, Micky looks just like Moses,” and sure enough, there Micky stood with a long white beard and wearing a long white robe.
The last phase of an LSD trip, a physiological event that for me negates whatever fun you might have had, is crashing, coming down off the drug. They said back then that LSD contained strychnine, which was responsible for the bodily trauma that crashing produced, but as it turns out, that’s an urban myth. Whatever the cause, when the sun came up on the first day of my nineteenth year, I was one miserable, guilt ridden human being, racked by remorse and bodily aches and pains.
Farley drove me home. When I arrived at the house, everyone but my father had gone to church. He was lying in bed smoking cigarettes as I slipped into my room, then headed to our one bathroom equipped with a tub. Lying there guilt-ridden in lukewarm water accompanied by a bit of floating pine straw, feeling as woebegone as I had ever felt, I heard my father’s voice booming from his bedroom.
“Rusty, what did you do with my wingtips?”
This really pissed me off. Rusty wore desert boots, not wingtips, in fact wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of wingtips and didn’t wear the same size shoe as his father.
“Rusty, what did you do with my wingtips?”
Oh, to be able to hop on that raft with Huck and Jim or to sign onto a whaling voyage (albeit a doomed one) with Ishmael and Queequeg or to track a mythic bear through the wilds of Yoknapatawpha County with Ike and Sam!
Oh, to be anywhere else besides 201 Lenwood Drive with Wesley and Wesley.
 William Faulkner, “The Bear.”
 Some called the activity “parking,” but none of us, to my recollection, ever called it “petting” or “canoodling,” the last being a word I never heard until adulthood. One night, my former school bus passenger-turned-police-officer Pike Limehouse shooed my girlfriend and me from the Clay Pits, an embarrassing encounter if there ever was one. By the way, have you ever noticed that in ‘50s horror films, teens making out tend to be the monsters’ first victims, a tribute to the puritanism that is also a major American literary motif.
In Hawthorne, unlike Thoreau, the Wilderness is manifest darkness, the abode of witches and Old Scratch himself, the New England equivalent of the Clay Pits.