Philip Branden, a young Swede from an upper-class background, arrives in Montreal broke and “determined not to form a little island of Europe in the American environment.” Possessing no practical skills, he must begin his search for economic stability in Toronto working in a cheap restaurant, first as a busboy and later as a waiter. He finds himself caught up in a squalid, conniving environment where “sharp practice” always aims to advance the individual at the expense of others. He feels compelled to move on to New York City. There he finds the same crassness, and he is quickly stripped of his money in a crooked card game.
After a traumatic revelation at the beach which leaves him with a sense of the insignificance of his existence, he sets out on a quest for personal insight. At first, he turns to the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, and James Russell Lowell for guidance, while at the same time trying a new career as a book salesman. At this point, he becomes sickened by the grasping materialism of the city and abandons the urban for the rural, isolating himself from mankind for three months.
His guide books are The Odyssey (c. 800 B.C.) and the New Testament. The first describes a geographical quest; the second defines the quest for spiritual awareness. His geographical quest takes him through New England into Pennsylvania, first following the river valleys and then, finally, taking to a raft.
In one of the novel’s most remarkable scenes, Branden encounters a hermit and saves him from drowning. This encounter leads him to the conclusion that in order to discover his soul he must return to the essentials of life and ignore the accidentals, and he once again reenters the world of men and women, spending a season as a hobo and harvest hand, learning about humanity and seeking a new life of service to others. His final commitment is to assist new immigrants “to build their partial views of America into total views.”