No. 19: “Hunting Mister Heartbreak” by Jonathan Raban

Travel Blog  •  Michael Shapiro  •  05.13.06 | 7:30 PM ET

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1990
Territory covered: The United States
Like a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, Jonathan Raban has traveled the length and breadth of the United States, observing Americans with the keen eye of a foreigner. His book Hunting Mister Heartbreak traverses the pathways of American immigration from late 19th-century Ellis Island to late 20th-century Seattle. In the book, Raban fully inhabits each place he visits, even borrowing an old black labrador named Gypsy in Alabama to feel more at home among the locals. He investigates whether a foreigner can truly become an American. In the end Raban realizes that one can adopt American ways but can never become completely American. And he seems quite relieved about that.

Outtake from Hunting Mister Heartbreak:

The moment you stepped on the gangplank you committed yourself­—not to America but to a strange and frightening sea ritual, which would ineluctably transform you from the person you had been on the dock into the person you would eventually become, when, and if, you reached the far shore. Over there, if the ocean had done its job, you’d have a different identity, and very probably a different name.

For more about Jonathan Raban, check out interviews with him at Powells.com and Wired for Books, and visit his Web site.

Michael Shapiro interviewed top travel writers for his book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives and Inspiration. His Web site has details on the book and his other work.