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Americans seem to be as mystified by the US as anyone else, so there's a cottage industry of folks hitting the road 'to find America' and write about it. Mark Twain's Roughing It was one of the first, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road continues to be a perennial favorite with fledgling beatniks. However, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and recent forays by Bill Bryson (The Lost Continent), Mark Weingardner (Elvis Presley Boulevard) and William Least Heat Moon (Blue Highways) map out a more recognizable terrain. The Freighthopper's Manual for North America: Hoboing in the 1980s, by Daniel Leen, is a little-known book that puts the joy back into trainspotting in its bid to revive a North American folk tradition.The outsider's perspective can be found in VS Naipaul's A Turn in the South, Jonathan Raban's Old Glory, Stephen Brooks New York Days, New York Nights, Richard Rayner's Los Angeles Without a Map and Jean Baudrillard's onanistic America.For a visitor's account of the early days of the republic, look at Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. The Penguin History of the United States of America by Hugh Brogan provides a comprehensive framework; an alternative view is presented in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.Peter Matthiessen's Indian Country, Dee Brown's seminal Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt are the best introductions to Native American culture, concerns and issues.The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is the classic slave narrative. The Autobiography of Malcolm X traces the remarkable life of one of black America's most challenging leaders. Richard Wright (Native Son), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) and James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) were long considered the literary voice of black America, but a flowering of female writers in the past 20 years has provided multifarious alternatives, including Alice Walker (The Color Purple), Toni Morisson (Tar Baby) and Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).Authors with a fine sense of place include William Faulkner (Mississippi), John Steinbeck (California), Flannery O'Connor (the South), Paul Auster (New York), Armistead Maupin (San Francisco) and Joan Didion (Los Angeles). For a trawl through the mean streets of America, try anything by Jim Thompson, James M Cain, Chester Himes or Raymond Chandler. Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy are arguably the hardest-hitting crime novelists.

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