So on August 2, 1935, the day before his thirty-fifth birthday, he and Jerry started driving north in their coupé, spending $3.60 for twenty gallons of gas, $2.20 for lunch and dinner, and $2 for a room near Doylestown, Pennsylvania—the first day of five years during which he crossed the continent twenty times, touched down at least three times in every state, and visited every country but two in the Western Hemisphere. “We have worn out two cars, five sets of tires, three typewriters, and pretty soon I’m going to have to have a new pair of shoes,” he later wrote. He filed something like 2.5 million words.
In 1947—after the war that brought Pyle fame, adulation, and death—his editor, friend, and fellow Hoosier, Lee G. Miller, culled and stitched those columns into Home Country, a posthumous contribution to a familiar and persistent genre of American nonfiction: the road book. Home Country was also the fulfillment of a wish that Pyle, when he uttered it, didn’t know would be among his last.
“I hope that someday you people will publish the book of mine that I like best myself,” he told his publishers before leaving for the Pacific theater in 1945—a trip that ended when, terminally curious, he stuck his head up too soon from the roadside ditch into which he and his companions had leaped from their Jeep to seek cover from a Japanese machine gunner. “That’s the book with all the stuff I wrote before the war, the book about my own country. About home. I think that’s the best writing I’ve ever done.”
It wasn’t, but then how could it be? As engaging as Pyle is about his tour through Monument Valley, it inevitably pales when compared to his walk along the beach at Normandy. But Pyle’s peacetime dispatches were, as Orville Prescott wrote in his review of Home Country for The New York Times, “more truly an authentic contribution to Americana” than any of the other star columnists of the era. “And because Ernie Pyle was a good reporter and an extraordinarily attractive personality all his columns were readable, many of them were thoroughly interesting and quite a few were delightful.”
Delightful enough that, in 1989, when I took my own journey across America for my own road book, Home Country was among the handful of books I brought along for the ride in my 1980 Chevy Citation. I read it then to measure how the country had changed since Pyle was on the road. When I read it again recently, I saw that it was a measure of something else now, too—of how much journalism has changed since I was on the road.
Because of the way it was cobbled together from Pyle’s daily columns, Home Country is, as the Times review noted, “necessarily choppy, scrappy and fragmentary.” It does not have the kind of narrative engine that drives road books like Travels With Charley or Blue Highways—a single, purposeful journey in quest of a big idea, incrementally accumulating and dispensing wisdom along the route. What it does have is something it shares with Pyle’s far better-known collection of war columns, Brave Men: it has an index.
My journey for my book was largely done in the dark—chronicling the Americans who went to work each night while the rest of the country slept—and Pyle’s index was a useful torch. It let me quickly find if he had been where I was going, and he usually had: Boston, St. Petersburg, Laredo, Seattle, and plenty of other places about which he always had something interesting to say.
But the index is also useful for the way it illuminates Pyle’s notion of what a reporter’s job is. The index consists entirely of the names of people and places; nothing but human beings you could buttonhole with questions, or cities, towns, and crossroads where you might try to find a medium-boiled egg, crisp bacon, and some dry toast, his preferred breakfast. No entry for “Dust Bowl” or “Depression” or “New Deal” or “Civilian Conservation Corps,” although he wrote about all of those things. A few of the names are famous (Walt Disney, Gene Autry, George Washington Carver), but most belong to people whose one turn in the national spotlight came when Ernie Pyle happened to bump into them.