Road Book

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WITH HIS AUTOMOBILE CLUB of America “scenic route” map in hand, Dreiser, the self-designated pathfinder, headed out to taste America with Booth and “a blonde, lithe, gangling youth with an eerie farmer-like look” named Speed, the chauffeur. Speed’s real name is never revealed, nor need it be; he is an “autohead,” a gifted grease monkey W!TO lives for cars and can fix a flat tire in about the time it would take the then Boston Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth to down a beer.

“I can think of nothing more suited to my temperament than automobiling,” Dreiser wrote. “It supplies just that mixture of change in fixity which satisfies me—leaves me mentally poised in inquiry, which is always delightful.” A Hoosier Holiday is essentially a tribute to the enduring virtues of Whitman’s Open Road. Here are Dreiser, Booth, and Speed together, speeding along through the dusk, celebrating the freedom of motorized travel: “We clambered up the bank on the farther side, the car making great noise. In this sweet twilight with fireflies and spirals of gnats and ‘pinchin’ bugs,’ as Speed called them, we tore the remainder of the distance, the eyes of the car glowing like great flames.”

Throughout A Hoosier Holiday Dreiser apostrophizes on everything from Slavic immigration to women’s fashions. He muses on tinsel tourists at the Delaware Water Gap, where New York finally sheds its grip; the drowsy hill villages where “ordinariness” is a coveted way of life; delectable roadside breakfasts and rotten-egg lunches; the giant coal pits of western Pennsylvania and the dull sidewalks of Scranton; the sandy beaches of Sandusky and the fallow cornfields of Indiana—thereby singing a chant of Middle America. “I know, indeed, of no book which better describes the American hinterland,” Mencken wrote of A Hoosier Holiday . “Here we have no idle spying by a stranger, but a full-length representation by one who knows the things he describes intimately, and is himself a part of it.”

Like most genuine works of art, A Hoosier Holiday operates on many levels, and Dreiser scholars can certainly learn much about him from this partial autobiography. But of more lasting interest is the automobile prose itself, detailing the hours Dreiser, Booth, and Speed “idled together” down the “poor, undernourished routes which the dull, imitative rabble shun, and where, because of this very fact, you have some peace and quiet.”

Although in no real hurry, Dreiser did enjoy sheer velocity: “It was the first opportunity that Speed had had to show what the machine could do,” he wrote, fore-shadowing Jack Kerouac’s portrait of Neal Cassady as Dean Moriarity in On the Road forty years later, “and instantly, though various signs read ‘Speed Limit: 25 miles an hour,’ I saw the speedometer climb to thirty-five and then forty and then to forty-five. It was a smooth-running machine which, at its best (or worst), gave vent to a tr-t-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r which became after a while somewhat like a croon.”

There is no mistaking Dreiser’s cultural nationalism in A Hoosier Holiday ; he loved filling his notebook with the names of towns such as Tobyhanna, Meshoppen, Blossburg, and Roaring Branch. His pilgrimage through the Midwest made him “enamored of our American country life once more.” On the other hand, he also fumed over the ugliness of industrial cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Indianapolis, all hell-bent on building skyscrapers. “Destroy the old, the different, and let’s be like New York!” Dreiser lamented of overambitious downtowns. “Every time I see one of these tenth-rate imitations, copying these great whales, I want to swear.”

Dreiser was creating a new genre, and not a single review called A Hoosier Holiday a “road book”; the term did not become popular until the 1950s. Nevertheless, his contemporaries immediately understood that the pioneer of literary naturalism had brought Whitman’s exuberance for the open road into the modern era. Just three years after the publication of A Hoosier Holiday , Sinclair Lewis issued his own picaresque highway romance novel, Free Air (1919), a clever hybrid of the dime Western and the gothic romance. Although Free Air is considered fiction, Lewis based it on his own cross-country jaunt in a Model T as a newlywed in 1916, escaping from Minneapolis to Seattle with his bride, Grace Hegger Lewis, who appears as the socialite Claire Boltwood in the book. As Claire navigates the deep-rutted rural roads of Minnesota, she pronounces the adventure a “voyage into democracy.”