Road Book

PrintPrintEmailEmail

WITH FREDERICK JACKSON Turner’s declaration that America’s Western frontier was closed, in 1893—soon after the first concrete street was paved, in Bellefontaine, Ohio—a new era began in travel writing. For just because the virgin land was vanishing didn’t mean that American wanderlust had seen its day. To the contrary, movement for movement’s sake was still a national obsession, and Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” first published in 1856 as “Poem of the Road,” still served as the literary wellspring of democratic enlightenment. Whitman, whom D. H. Lawrence called the first “white aboriginal,” said that listening to the “cheerful voice of the public road” led to wisdom. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it more succinctly: “There is no truth but in transit.” And as long as people moved about, there would be travel journals.

The Western tradition of travel writing can be traced back at least to thirteenth-century Icelandic and Norwegian epic narratives, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century and the advent of Whitman, Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau that “the journey” took on a decidedly self-reflective dimension. The redemptive effect of abandoning one’s own status quo in search of the inner self, a general premise of nearly all American road narratives, was a sacred given to Thoreau. “For every walk is a sort of crusade,” he wrote, “preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”

Ironically, it was Thoreau’s infidels— the industrialists who preached the gospel of unfettered commerce—who wound up inspiring the modern genre of “highway literature” or “road books” by developing the automobile. And motorized travel gave the generation inaugurating Henry Luce’s “American Century” something transcendental indeed: “Thoreau at 29 cents a gallon,” as one commentator put it.

Early highway literature appeared in manufacturers’ promotional pamphlets, song sheets, and racing books designed to stir consumers’ imaginations—and open their wallets. In 1903 H. Nelson Jackson, a thirty-one-year-old Vermont doctor, and his mechanic, Sewall Crocker, piloted a used two-seater Winton motorcar from California to New York in a mere sixty-three days and celebrated the feat in a pamphlet they penned on commission from the Winton Motor Carriage Company for promotional distribution and which was titled From Ocean to Ocean in a Winton . Some scholars believe this to be the first road book.

A decade later U.S. automobile registrations had grown from a few thousand to almost half a million. The rage was on, full throttle. “Within only two or three years, every one of you will have yielded to the horseless craze and be a boastful owner of a metal demon,” predicted the Indiana novelist Booth Tarkington, who fretted that automobiles would transform America’s roads from Walt Whitman’s paths of transcendental enlightenment into William Blake’s apocalyptic avenues of industrial angst.

But not every “serious” writer shared that view. As Henry Ford’s Highland Park assembly line began punching out Model T’s at an astonishing rate, Tarkington’s fellow Indianan Theodore Dreiser, who had been living in New York City writing his controversial novels The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Genius (1915), found his imagination piqued by the automobile’s indisputable advantages over other means of leisure travel. In Dreiser’s eyes the automobile, far from being a metal demon, could have a liberating effect on America’s bulging middle class. As for himself, writing three long novels in succession had made Dreiser eager to travel—with a purpose, of course.

Given his predilections, Dreiser gladly accepted when his friend Franklin Booth, an illustrator for The Masses , asked the renowned author to accompany him in his new Ford motorcar on a two-thousand-mile roundtrip from Manhattan to Indiana. Thus Dreiser became the progenitor of a genuine literary subgenre: the American road book. Henry James’s The American Scene (1907) had included passages about automobiles, Sunset magazine had featured Victor Eubank’s thoughtful essay “Log of an Auto Prairie Schooner: Motor Pioneers on the Trail to Sunset” in 1912, and Effie Price Gladding had written the boosterish Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway three years later, but it was Dreiser’s five-hundred-page A Hoosier Holiday (1916), brimming with poignant detail and poetic passages, that brought the automobile to the forefront of American literature. As H. L. Mencken noted in The Smart Set, A Hoosier Holiday (along with certain sections of The Titan) marked “the high tide of Dreiser’s writing,” and that is high praise indeed.

A Hoosier Holiday ’s story line is simple. Dreiser, born in Terre Haute, hadn’t been back to the towns of south-central Indiana since he had been a sixteen-year-old ambitious to become a big-city reporter twenty-eight years earlier. His reasons for the 1915 “pilgrimage” were myriad: nostalgia, a social realist’s penchant for taking the pulse of the nation, a middle-aged yearning for episodic adventure, and the impulse to write an automobile-trek book.