America isn’t a country. It’s a road. It’s one vast, endless squiggle of highway. Up close, this road is perpetually splitting into smaller and shorter pathways, and finally these peter out into private driveways.
Viewed as a whole, though, America is a big snarl of asphalt. It’s a mess of meandering gray lines with a white stripe running right down the middle. Our people are always on their way somewhere else. Our best literature—John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—is generally about journeys. Our favorite movies, such as The Wizard of Oz and Sullivan’s Travels are about going there and getting back.
The trouble with America and its obvious love affair with the road, however, is just that: It’s too obvious. Who is surprised to find out that we’re a peripatetic culture, that we adore our cars? Who is startled to learn that road trips are crucial rites of passage for most Americans, that our moods tend to rise and fall with the price of gas?
To write about America’s passion for cars and car travel, then, is perilous. You’ve got about as much chance of finding something new and interesting to say as you have of locating a pristine bathroom in a dilapidated filling station on a dusty back road. Yet writers keep trying to do just that—producing books about America’s car culture, that is, not ferreting out a clean lavatory—because the subject is just so endlessly interesting.
Three recent books about America’s affinity for the automobile demonstrate both the promise and the peril of the gas-pedal genre. Two of these books—both, as it happens, published by the University of Chicago Press—dig deep and come up with rich new insights about how our attachment to driving has changed the world culturally, socially, intellectually and environmentally. The third, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) falls into the “Duh” camp, a location beset by what some call B.G.O: a Blinding Grasp of the Obvious.
In Traffic, author Tom Vanderbilt reveals—the verb is ironic—that men honk more than women; that people in cities honk more than people in small towns; that when you’re bored, time seems to move more slowly; that the richer we get, the more cars we buy and the worse traffic congestion becomes. Is any of that news to you? Didn’t think so.
Yet Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age by Brian Ladd and Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America by Cotten Seiler are filled with fresh insights about the undeniable fact that, as Ladd puts it, “Many of us have chosen to become virtual centaurs attached to our four-wheeled, prosthetic bodies.” He chronicles how freeway construction cleaved neighborhoods, and stacks up America’s passion for new roads against that of other nations.
Seiler’s book, the best of the three, is written with grace and authority and finely wrought insight. He points out how the language of driving and the language of capitalism both employ “tropes of motion”: moving, hustling. Cars, he says, “are products of a highly specific conception of what it means to be modern and free.” We may believe that we’re in the driver’s seat, that is, but in point of fact, cars took control of the cultural steering wheel before we even hit the city limits.
Republic of Drivers