The Lost Continent

After the death of his father, journalist Bill Bryson decided to travel around America, to find the 'perfect town'. Following a journey filled with quirky people, and weird tourist attractions, Bill Bryson wrote The Lost Continent (1989). This decision lead to the creation of one of the most beloved and famous travelogues of the 20th century. 

The Lost Continent The Lost Continent

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Table of contents

    The Lost Continent: context

    The Lost Continent was written by American author, Bill Bryson, and published in 1989. Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, a small town in Iowa, USA. Bryson's parents were both local journalists, and he also worked in this profession as an editor for The Independent in the UK. Bryson lived in the UK from 1975 until 1995, when he and his family moved to America. They remained there until 2003, when they returned to the UK.

    In 1986, Bill Bryson's father, Bill Bryson Sr, died. This event was the catalyst for Bryson writing The Lost Continent (1989). After the death of his father, Bryson became nostalgic, and so decided to set out on a journey across the United States. This trip partially replicated road trips his family took when he was a child and crossed through many small towns.

    The Lost Continent (1989) was written at the end of the 1980s. During this time Ronald Reagan was president, followed by the election of George H. W. Bush in 1989. Both men were Republicans and, under their leadership, there was rapid urbanisation in America. This had a negative impact on small towns - they began to disappear.

    The Lost Continent: summary

    What is the novel about? Where does Bryson visit? Why is he travelling?

    Bryson's trip around America focuses on small towns and less popular tourist spots. He does this with two aims, to discover a 'perfect town' and to remember his father. The death of Bryson's father is the driving force of the novel. It affects how Bryson views his journey as well as the nostalgic tone that is present throughout the novel. This is explored in the first chapter of the novel:

    I became quietly seized with that nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle of your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took some of you with him.

    Chapter 1

    The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

    The novel is divided into two halves; East and West. During the book, Bryson travels around 13,958 miles! He visits lesser-known tourist spots during his trip, such as author Mark Twain's childhood home. He also sees many national parks, where he observes their beauty and remarks on how important it is to preserve these areas. Bryson's journey takes him to states such as Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire.

    The novel is filled with Bryson's witty observations about the people and places that he encounters. However, there are also moments of sincerity, such as when he remembers his late father, or his grandmother, who moved in with the family when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Bryson finishes his trip back to Des Moines, where he concludes that he would be happy to live there.

    The Lost Continent: quotes

    Below are a number of important quotes from The Lost Continent (1989):

    Generally speaking – which is of course always a dangerous thing to do, generally speaking – Americans revere the past only as long as there is some money in it somewhere and it doesn’t mean going without air-conditioning, free parking and other essential conveniences.

    Chapter 4

    In this quote, Bryson discusses how capitalism has led America to only love historic sites if they can be commodified. This is a central idea in The Lost Continent (1989), as Bryson goes on to discuss how capitalism has caused the erosion of both areas of natural beauty and small-town life in America.

    In this he was like most Midwesterners. Directions are very important to them. They have an innate need to be oriented, even in their anecdotes. Any story related by a Midwesterner will wander off at some point into a thicket of interior monologue along the lines of "We were staying at a hotel that was eight blocks northeast of the state capital building. Come to think of it, it was northwest. And I think it was probably more like nine blocks. And this woman without any clothes on, naked as the day she was born except for a coonskin cap, came running at us from the southwest... or was it the southeast?"

    Chapter 2

    Here, Bryson uses a memory of his father to reflect on the people in the Midwest of America. This quote shows how Bryson uses his memories of his father in order to make a wider statement about the people from his area of the USA. By doing this, Bryson is able to join together a humorous and sincere tone that carries throughout the novel.

    [Traveling] makes you realize what an immeasurably nice place much of America could be if only people possessed the same instinct for preservation as they do in Europe. You would think the millions of people who come to Williamsburg every year would say to each other, "Gosh, Bobbi, this place is beautiful. Let's go home to Smellville and plant lots of trees and preserve all the fine old buildings." But in fact that never occurs to them. They just go back and build more parking lots and Pizza Huts.

    Chapter 10

    Here, Bryson reflects on the differences between America and Europe. He would go on to further explore this idea in his novels, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe (1991) and Notes from a Small Island (1995). In this quote, Bryson highlights how he believes that America should preserve their landscapes and historic buildings in the same way as European countries do.

    The Lost Continent: genre

    The Lost Continent (1989) fits into two categories; non-fiction and travelogue.


    One of the most popular categories of literature is the non-fiction novel.

    Non-fiction - Literature that is based on fact.

    Non-fiction novels are stories that follow real people and are based on true events. A non-fiction book can follow a different person, however, they frequently centre around the author themself. The Lost Continent (1989) falls into the second category, as it follows Bryson on his trip. The primary purpose of the non-fiction novel is to inform. Bryson provides a true account of his trip in order to inform the reader about his journey and small-town America. While there are fewer straight facts in this book than in Bryson's other non-fiction novels, there are still statistics such as the one below.

    I read once that it takes 75,000 trees to produce one issue of the Sunday New York Times — and it's well worth every trembling leaf. So what if our grandchildren have no oxygen to breathe?

    Chapter 18

    Bryson creates a conversational tone in his novel through the use of pronouns such as 'our'. By using these pronouns, Bryson includes the reader in his thoughts and opinions. This is paired with Bryson's own witty observations that create a casual and conversational tone in the novel.


    One of the most popular types of non-fiction novels is the travelogue.

    Travelogue - Literature that recounts the true stories of a traveller.

    Bill Bryson is frequently regarded as the most famous and successful travelogue writer of the 20th century. The Lost Continent (1989) is the first travelogue that the author wrote. The travelogue originated in Ancient Greece, however it experienced a surge in popularity during the 20th century. This was due in part to the success of Bryson's travelogues. The main intention of the travelogue is to inform the reader about a country. The Lost Continent (1989) succeeds at this aim as it informs the reader of Bryson's own perspective on America.

    In the morning I awoke early and experienced that sinking sensation that overcomes you when you first open your eyes and realize that instead of a normal day ahead of you, with its scatterings of simple gratifications, you are going to have a day without even the tiniest of pleasures; you are going to drive across Ohio.

    Chapter 11

    A key characteristic in Bill Bryson's travelogues is their humour. Bryson presents his travels in a way that makes the reader laugh. This is done in the quote above through the use of an in-joke that allows the reader to feel included in Bryson's feeling of dread.

    The Lost Continent: themes

    Two of the key themes in The Lost Continent (1989) are urbanisation vs nature and small-town life in America.

    Urbanisation vs nature

    In The Lost Continent (1989), Bryson spends time emphasising the natural beauty of America. This theme would be revisited in Bryson's 1998 novel, A Walk in the Woods (1998), in which he hiked the Appalachian Trail. Both novels explore the idea that people take areas of beauty in America for granted. This is specifically highlighted by Bryson's focus on the juxtaposition between these natural areas and urban sprawl. This is seen in the quote below,

    At the foot of the mountain, the park ended and suddenly all was squalor again. I was once more struck by this strange compartmentalization that goes on in America -- a belief that no commercial activities must be allowed inside the park, but permitting unrestrained development outside, even though the landscape there may be just as outstanding. America has never quite grasped that you can live in a place without making it ugly, that beauty doesn't have to be confined behind fences, as if a national park were a sort of zoo for nature.

    Chapter 10

    During his trip around America, Bryson becomes aware of the growing urbanisation occurring across the country. This troubles the author, who worries that urbanisation will infringe upon areas of beauty and small-town America. This theme is at the core of Bryson's novel, as he grapples with the fear that these places will be eroded away by urban development.

    Small-town America

    In The Lost Continent (1989), small-town America is a source of nostalgia for Bryson. He embarks on his trip around the country with the hope to find the 'perfect small-town'. This town should be reflective of the places that he visited as a child with his parents. However, due to the previously mentioned urbanisation, these towns are becoming rarer to find. This idea angers Bryson, as highlighted in the quote below,

    And before long there will be no more milk in bottles delivered to the doorstep or sleepy rural pubs, and the countryside will be mostly shopping centers and theme parks. Forgive me. I don't mean to get upset. But you are taking my world away from me, piece by little piece, and sometimes it just pisses me off. Sorry.

    Chapter 23

    The Lost Continent: analysis

    The Lost Continent (1989) is one of the most popular American travelogues of the 20th century. The novel is also credited for propelling Bryson to fame and it helped establish the author as the preeminent travel writer of his generation. There are two purposes to The Lost Continent (1989), firstly to highlight urbanisation in small-town America, but also to remember Bryson's father and his childhood. The novel ends on a sincere note, as Bryson returns to his home town of Des Moines, he concludes that he has lived in the perfect small-town all along.

    I drove on into Des Moines and it looked very large and handsome in the afternoon sunshine. The golden dome of the state capitol building gleamed. Every yard was dark with trees. People were out cutting the grass or riding bikes. I could see why strangers came in off the interstate looking for hamburgers and gasoline and stayed forever. There was just something about it that looked friendly and decent and nice. I could live here, I thought, and turned the car for home. It was the strangest thing, but for the first time in a long time I almost felt serene.

    Chapter 29

    The Lost Continent - Key takeaways

    • The novel was written by Bill Bryson.
    • The Lost Continent (1989) was published in 1989.
    • It follows Bryson as he travels around America.
    • The Lost Continent (1989) is a non-fiction travelogue.
    • The novel explores themes of urbanisation, nature and small-town America.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Lost Continent

    Who wrote The Lost Continent (1989)? 

    The Lost Continent (1989) was written by Bill Bryson. 

    When was The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson written? 

    The Lost Continent was written in 1989.

    What is The Lost Continent (1989) about? 

    The Lost Continent (1989) follows Bill Bryson as he travels around America in the search for the 'perfect town'.

    What is the theme of The Lost Continent (1989)? 

    The Lost Continent (1989) features themes of urbanization vs nature and small-town life. 

    How many chapters are in The Lost Continent (1989) Bill Bryson? 

    There are 29 chapters in The Lost Continent (1989) Bill Bryson.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What country does Bill Bryson travel around in The Lost Continent (1989)?

    What theme is not explored in The Lost Continent (1989)?

    Which Bill Bryson travelogue is also set in America?


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