By Sarah Champagne
SOUTHBRIDGE – Author and academic Loren Ghiglione’s new book, Genus Americanus – Hitting the Road in Search of America’s Identity, is an engaging travelogue that aims to tell the stories of a wide array of Americans – while exploring the looming question of who and what America is. The book recounts Ghiglione’s road trip across the United States with journalism students Dan Tham and Alyssa Karas (described for their youthful presence as “joyous June bugs”) in 2011.
The trio interviewed more than 150 Americans, seeking insight on the American character. Along the way, they reflected on three themes – the work and travels of Mark Twain, interviews with “ordinary Americans and experts about contemporary identity issues,” and the influence of immigrants and their descendants on American life.
Ghiglione travelled extensively again for follow-up interviews between 2011 and 2016 before Genus Americanus was released in October 2020. The book, of course, lands at a time of rapid political and historic change for the country it examines. The reflections and stories in the book provide fertile ground for examining questions about America that have only escalated since the trio’s original road trip. What values should guide us? How do we manage our political, cultural, and personal differences? As the trio examines the identity of America in the years leading up to the Trump years, readers in the months following its release might also find themselves reflecting on the character of America and its leaders.
Ghiglione reflects in the book’s introduction, aptly titled Is America’s Identity at a Turning Point, “An early national motto, ‘E pluribus unum,’ also suggests a unified United States: ‘Out of many, one.’ Was such unity anything more than a myth about pluralistic exceptionalism? Was the United States becoming increasingly hostile to the many that made the one? I hoped our road trip would help answer such questions.”
Genus Americanus dives into how race, class, gender, religion, and other identity issues impact the lives of ordinary Americans. Interviews with Americans are presented throughout the book, providing surprises, insights, and a variety of experiences along the way. The first story from the road shared in Genus Americanus introduces us to Connie Ridder. The story she shares and follow-up on her interview suggest that progress toward racial justice and a reckoning with the past are a recursive process with gains and setbacks.
Ritter worked at the Mark Twain Birthplace Historic Site in Stoutsville, Missouri and served as a museum guide for the travelling trio. She had worked at the museum for years, advancing through positions. Ritter, a black woman, created a display about slavery during Twain’s time, which had been added to the museum. However, after Ritter’s retirement in 2014, the display was temporarily removed to allow time to review photo permissions. Ghiglione writes that as late as 2017, the display was still being stored in the museum’s basement with only long term plans, possibly stretching over a decade’s time, to consider its reintroduction to public view. (At present, the Mark Twain Birthplace Historic Site is closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Genus Americanus joins the American tradition of road trip literature and includes references to some of the most well-known examples of the genre. The title of the book itself comes from John Steinbeck’s essay Genus Americanus, found in Steinbeck’s last published work, an anthology called America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction. Ghiglione also refers to Steinbeck’s travelogue Travels With Charley.
The itinerary of the trip was influenced in part by Mark Twain’s travels across America and there are references throughout the book to literary travelers such as Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. Ghiglione draws from insights on the American road trip shared by Dayton Duncan, who with Ken Burns, documented the travels of Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson. Jackson is regarded as the first person to drive an automobile across the United States.
“‘Old elephants limp off to the hills to die,’ Hunter S. Thompson writes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ‘Old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death.’ But I drove to live – to take the pulse of America, to experience the education of the open road,” Ghiglione writes.
Duncan’s insight about road trips, or “rules of the road” include the idea of “enjoying a road trip for itself, whatever the trip’s purpose” and that “The final value of any expedition is not what you failed to discover but what you found in its place.” Although Ghiglione does list six key takeaways from the journey, the question of America’s identity remains a large question with evolving answers.
At the end of the road trip, Ghiglione writes that, “No profound truths about the trip’s meaning bubbled from my brain. I was overcome by weariness and indecisiveness – indeed, a humbling humility – about what conclusions we could draw from our interviews.”
However, the trio did reflect on the capacity for progress in America and on the influence of the road trip in their lives. Tham and Karas express tremendous respect and affection for Ghiglione. Karas reflects on the combination of personalities during the roadtrip.
“It really turned out to be miraculous because he and Dan and I got along so well. Something about the combination of the three worked so well,” she remarks.
Tham reflects on the camaraderie that came out of the project and the experience of working with Ghilione.
“I still think about the trip from the time to time, even nine years later. It was truly a formative experience for me, as a journalist and as a human being, in general,” Tham remarks.
“For Alyssa and me, being able to bear witness to Loren’s tremendous empathy, curiosity and integrity as a journalist was the greatest journalism education I could have asked for. He would often seek out opportunities to ‘diminish [his] ignorance,’ wherever we went. For a well-educated and highly-regarded journalist in his 70s to openly acknowledge his potential blind spots was extremely humbling for me. And inspires me to this day,” he adds.
The younger “joyous June bugs” of the trio also reflect on what insights about the character and identity of America might arise from the experience.
“I feel hopeful that Americans won’t stop fighting for equality on all fronts. But I think if our trip taught us anything, it’s important to acknowledge and reflect on the difficult – and sometimes ugly – parts of our past so that we can go into the future with our eyes open,” offers Karas.
“While we may not have reached any definitive conclusions about as complicated a topic as America’s identity, the trip enriched my appreciation for the diversity that comprises the US and the wealth of stories that can be found in every corner of the country,” says Tham.
Return to a Former Hometown
Ghiglione visited Southbridge’s Jacob Edwards Library in October 2020 to give a scheduled presentation on Genus Americanus (available for view through Southbridge Community Cable’s YouTube channel). The presentation was planned before the COVID-19 pandemic began. As live events were moved online or cancelled outright due to the pandemic, organizers of the event hoped that readers in Central Massachusetts would still be able to hear from Ghiglione. Luckily, both Ghiglione and his wife Nancy were able to visit Jacob Edwards Library as scheduled, with a reduced in-person audience to accommodate capacity limits put in place because of the pandemic.
Ghiglone is known locally as the former owner and publisher of The Southbridge Evening News, the daily publication that many in Southbridge grew up with. Ghiglione and his wife Nancy published the trusted daily newspaper from 1970 to 1995.
In Genus Americanus, Ghiglione describes his early days with The Southbridge Evening News, writing that “Inspired by William Allen White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning owner of the four-thousand-circulation Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, I had bought the struggling fifty-seven-hundred-circulation Evening News when I was twenty-eight. I dreamed of becoming a progressive, politically independent version of White, writing fire-breathing editorials and putting out the best small-town paper in America.”
Ghiglione was also committed during his ownership to having a newsroom that reflected the diversity of the community it served.
“It was easier for me to have an impact in Southbridge, a town that a Black newsroom intern labeled Whitesville. By recruiting aggressively, I was able to achieve a newsroom staff by the mid-1980s that was 40 percent reporters and editors of color,” he writes.
Elsewhere, he describes himself as “the former editor of a dinky daily in Southbridge, Massachusetts.” Here, Ghiglione is being modest, as his time at the helm produced a beloved newspaper that is still missed by locals and thought of as a
The history of The Southbridge Evening News before Ghiglione’s arrival also suggests a robust professional publication. Ghiglione bought the newspaper from Frank McNitt, son of Virgil V. McNitt, who had founded the very successful McNaught Syndicate. The company had purchased The Southbridge News in 1931 from Robert Slough. The McNaught Syndicate operated from the New York Times building and owned features such as Dear Abby, columns by Dale Carnegie and Will Rogers, and the original Heathcliff comics.
When Virgil V. McNitt passed away, his son Frank inherited the Southbridge News and operated it for several years before selling it to Ghiglione in 1970. McNitt first hired Ghiglione for a time as an assistant to provide Ghiglione with an opportunity to become familiar with the newspaper and the community. Eventually, McNitt chose to sell to the ambitious young Ghiglione, foregoing a variety of other potential offers.
Alexandra McNitt, Frank’s daughter, presently the Executive Director of the South Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, recalls her family’s sale of the local newspaper.
“I was less than 10 years old when my dad sold the paper to Loren. The story in my family goes that my father was impressed with Loren’s intellect and vision for the paper. My dad was happy to sell to Loren and free himself up for his own writing projects,” McNitt recalls.
Over his decades in Southbridge, Ghiglione continued to learn about the town’s character and its people, creating lifelong connections along the way. When he arrived in Southbridge to explore the idea of purchasing the local newspaper, he met Mario Piccione of Mario’s Restaurant, a local business still in operation. Ghiglone describes his arrival in Southbridge in Genus Americanus.
“In 1969, shortly before I bought the Evening News, Frank McNitt, the owner, allowed me to learn about the paper and the community by working as his assistant. Before retiring to my $18-a-week boarding house room, I often ate dinner at Mario’s, a tiny Main Street restaurant,” he reflects.
“Because he was feeling sorry for an Evening News novice who clearly knew nothing about Southbridge, Mario Piccione, the restaurant’s owner, insisted on buying me dinner during my first week in town. When he later read that I had become the paper’s owner, he sent me a small celebratory orange tree, an act of kindness I will never forget,” Ghilione recalls.
Piccione laughs heartily in response to this excerpt. “Is that right? Well, I gave him a lasagna dinner when he bought the newspaper. He came into town from New York City and he told me he was going to work at the newspaper. I told him he should go back to New York to make real money. I felt bad for him. Then, I saw him on the front page as the new owner of the paper. I thought, ‘Oh boy.’”
“Loren is one hell of a guy,” Piccione says with a laugh and an expanding smile.
As we talked, Piccione reflected on his many decades running a restaurant in Southbridge. Piccione served countless meals to employees of the nearby American Optical in its heyday. When I spoke to him, Piccione proudly shared a copy of his 1967 menu. Piccione pointed out the prices of the time period (sandwiches were all listed at less than a dollar) and notes that “the girls at the AO” who came to Mario’s for lunch were making about 85 cents an hour at that time.
Genus Americanus includes a touching passage about a visit to Mario’s Restaurant when Ghiglione, Tham, and Karas met locals Ron Tremblay, Jean Ashton, and Mark Asthon for a meal. These three local characters, who many in Southbridge will remember personally, are described by Ghiglione as “managers crucial to the success of The Evening News during my time there.”
Ideals of Citizenship
As Ghiglione presented at Jacob Edwards Library, he stood in front of a portrait of Seaver Rice (1892 – 1988). Those who grew up in Southbridge might remember Rice as “Mr. Southbridge,” a local leader who volunteered in Southbridge, worked at American Optical, and loved the community during his lifetime. Rice published books of local lore and also wrote for the Southbridge Evening News when Ghiglione was at the helm. And as an interesting coincidence for this story, Rice met Mark Twain as a youth.
At Jacob Edwards Library, Ghiglione shared a story about Seaver Rice’s efforts to help a neighbor exercise the right to vote. Ahead of the presidential election of 1932, Rice heard from a Southbridge resident who lived in a second floor apartment and used a wheelchair after losing his legs. This man needed help accessing the polling place and so Rice, a life-long republican and a patriotic veteran, carried the man’s wheelchair down the stairs. He then carried the man himself down the stairs, drove him to the polling place, and made sure that the man was able to access the building to vote. Rice repeated the good deed for the same man in 1936, 1940, and 1944.
Ghiglone reports that the republican Rice wrote years later in his Southbridge Evening News column that, “In 1944, after I had carried him up the stairs to his home and deposited him in his favorite chair, he looked up at me with a grateful smile. ‘Thank you Mr. Rice,’ he said. ‘This is four times I voted for Roosevelt.’”
Genus Americanus: Hitting the Road in Search of America’s Identity can be purchased locally at Booklovers’ Gourmet in Webster, Massachusetts in person or by curbside pickup. Call (508) 949-6232 or contact Jacob Edwards Library for details of how to get a copy.