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The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey

by Douglas Brinkley

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1923126,135 (3.76)1
Professor Douglas Brinkley arranged to teach a six-week experimental class aboard a fully equipped sleeper bus. The class would visit thirty states and ten national parks. They would read twelve books by great American writers. They would see Bob Dylan in Seattle, gamble at a Vegas casino, dance to Bourbon Street jazz in New Orleans, pay homage to Elvis Presley's Graceland and William Faulkner's Rowan Oak, ride the whitewater rapids on the Rio Grande, and experience a California earthquake.Their journey took them to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Harry Truman's Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt's North Dakota badlands. And it gave them the unforgettable experience of meeting some of their cultural heroes, including William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, who took the gang for a spin in his own psychedelic bus. Driven by Doug Brinkley's energetic prose, The Majic Bus is a spirited travelogue of a unique experience.… (more)
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One of the best books I've read. A historian takes a group of college students around the country, visiting sites connected with American history and literature. ( )
1 vote LesaHolstine | Jul 25, 2007 |
Books about teaching, we expect to be stuffy or sentimental or satiric, either a bit too idealistic or downright negative or very “how-to” practical. The Majic Bus is a book about teaching, though it is none of the above. But then the author Douglas Brinkley is not like other teachers, and the Majic Bus is certainly like no other classroom. Many teachers think of the journey as an apt metaphor for teaching and learning—a kind of pilgrimage if you will. For Brinkley the journey—traveling all across the United States in a bus—was not a metaphor but a method. The whole course became one long field trip, and the Majic Bus served as dais, library, conference room, and study hall.

Douglas Brinkley is making himself a reputation as an American historian. He has a great many biographies and histories already to his credit, including The Unfinished Presidency, one of the best books available on Jimmy Carter; Tour of Duty, an account of John Kerry’s Vietnam experience; and the biography of Rosa Parks in the Penguin Lives series. He has scholarly books on Dean Acheson, the Henry Ford Company, and James Forrestal, and he has edited the diaries of Ronald Reagan, the journals of Jack Kerouac, and the letters of Hunter S. Thompson. With his colleague, the late Stephen Ambrose, he completed a number of projects, such as the coffee table book, The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation; the American Heritage History of the United States, a photographic extravaganza; and the revised edition of Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938. The Great Deluge, Brinkley’s analysis of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, where he now lives and teaches, is a no-holds-barred exposure of failures, ulterior motives, and incompetency.

One of these days, when a list is compiled of writers who have made American history not only readable and popular (best-seller popular, Book-of-the-Month club popular) but also scholarly, accurate, and detailed, his name will be joined with Samuel Eliot Morison, James MacGregor Burns, James McPherson, Daniel Boorstin, David McCullough, maybe Doris Kearns Goodwin, and his own colleague Stephen Ambrose.

But back in the spring of 1992 Douglas Brinkley was a young, assistant professor at Hofstra University, teaching courses like “The Beat Generation and Counterculturism in America” in Hofstra’s New College. Having taken a field trip to Jack Kerouac’s hometown in one such class, students had bonded with each other and their instructor. At the last session, one student asked, “Why do we have to learn about America from a classroom on Long Island? Why don’t you teach us on the road?”

Thus, another New College course was born: “An American Odyssey: Art and Culture Across America.” Seventeen students joined Brinkley, his administrative assistant, and Frank Felugi, their driver/father figure on the Majic Bus for twelve weeks. The end papers of the book show their itinerary: from NYC through the Southeast to New Orleans, then to Chicago and the Midwest, thence through Denver and Santa Fe to California and back from Seattle by a northerly route via the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Deadwood, South Dakota.

Felugi, the driver, is a character himself, an American original. The Majic Bus was his lifelong dream, and this trek was its maiden voyage. “In my mind,” Brinkley explains, “I wanted someone who was a combination of the two contradictory impulses that had spawned American Odyssey in the first place: the educational intimacy of my family highway sojourns and the wild Dionysian frenzy of [Kerouac’s] On the Road. We needed a hybrid of Dad and Neal Cassady.” That’s exactly what he found in Frank Felugi. Full of homely tales and adages, he enforced three rules: “no smoking, drugs, or messiness.”

To see so much of the United States in twelve weeks could be a grueling task, but they slept on the bus and did their reading on the bus, and spent every available minute seeing places, meeting people, and doing things—to learn first-hand about American culture. Just a few representative sentences from Brinkley’s introduction will give you an idea of what their pilgrimage was like:

“My students would read Mark Twain in Missouri; Carson McCullers in Georgia; William Faulkner in Mississippi; Hunter S. Thompson in Las Vegas, John Steinbeck and Jack London in California; and Jack Kerouac, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman everywhere. . . . Instead of sitting in a Long Island classroom reading about Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois, Jimmy Carter’s Georgia, Harry Truman’s Missouri, or Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia, we would visit those states ourselves on a historical exploration of America.”

“Together we spit out spontaneous prose poems in Colorado; practiced lotus-style meditation at a Buddhist institute in Boulder; shouted Vachel Lindsay’s ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan’ out loud on his rickety Springfield, Illinois, front porch; and sang the blues in the Mississippi Delta. We spent a light afternoon with the dark William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, and a fog-shrouded dusk with Ken Kesey at this farm in Oregon, dressing in Day-Glo rain gear to whiz around the misty Bigfoot countryside in his psychedelic bus, ‘Further.’”

Because Brinkley taught well, his students learned. Because he writes well, we see them learning and join with them. He hoped his book would accomplish three objectives: become (1) a favorite guide for students hoping to discover the US; (2) a resource for parents; and (3) “an inspiration for educators looking for alternative approaches to teaching American history and literature.” All three, he accomplished.

So get on board the Majic Bus. You’ll be glad you did. ( )
  bfrank | Jul 1, 2007 |
Overall, an interesting account of Brinkley's "on the road" undergraduate seminar. At times, though, I wished the reader got to spend more time with the students. When it was just Brinkley talking, I felt like I was being lectured to, instead of being allowed to share the experience of going to all these places. ( )
  bostonian71 | Oct 5, 2005 |
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Professor Douglas Brinkley arranged to teach a six-week experimental class aboard a fully equipped sleeper bus. The class would visit thirty states and ten national parks. They would read twelve books by great American writers. They would see Bob Dylan in Seattle, gamble at a Vegas casino, dance to Bourbon Street jazz in New Orleans, pay homage to Elvis Presley's Graceland and William Faulkner's Rowan Oak, ride the whitewater rapids on the Rio Grande, and experience a California earthquake.Their journey took them to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Harry Truman's Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt's North Dakota badlands. And it gave them the unforgettable experience of meeting some of their cultural heroes, including William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, who took the gang for a spin in his own psychedelic bus. Driven by Doug Brinkley's energetic prose, The Majic Bus is a spirited travelogue of a unique experience.

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