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Road Book

June 2024
11min read

The most American of American literary genres is nearly as old as the motorcar itself

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.

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.”

Following in the tire tracks of Dreiser and Lewis, much memorable fiction of the 1920s and 1930s prominently features the automobile, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and John Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel (1930) to Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1933) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Each of these quintessentially American writers portrayed driving a car down what Steinbeck called “roads of flight” as the escape route from institutional racism, stark poverty, a regimented life, or whatever else ailed you. James Agee perhaps best summed up the nation’s infatuation with the automobile in “The Great American Roadside,” a 1934 essay published in Fortune . “God made the American restive,” Agee wrote. “The American in turn and in due time got the automobile and found it good. The war exasperated his restiveness and the twenties made him rich and more restive still and he found the automobile not merely good but better and better. It was good because continuously it satisfied and at the same time greatly sharpened his hunger for movement; which is very probably the profoundest and most compelling of American racial hungers. The fact is that the automobile became a hypnosis.”

It would take reams to list all the great American novels in which the automobile plays a pivotal role. Every reader has his own favorite literary road scene, be it the superb opening of Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men (1946) or Humbert Humbert’s experiencing the whole gamut of our roadside kitsch in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) or the declaration of Mr. Shiftlet in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” who declares, “The body, lady, is like a house: it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like an automobile: always on the move always.”

AFTER WORLD WAR II, How ever, road books that tended to embrace Booth Tarkington’s notion of the automobile as a metal demon began to appear. Indisputably the most surly was Henry Miller’s The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945). Miller, who had been living in Paris as the notorious expatriate author of Tropic of Cancer , had returned to America for a spell and decided to travel the despised nation of his birth by automobile. He lambasted everything from supermarkets to hairstyles to exhaust fumes—to cars themselves, which got a swift kick after the author chugged up a California mountain pass on his way to San Bernardino: “Everything but the ocean seems jammed into this mile-high circus at sixty miles an hour. It wasn’t I who got the thrill —it was a man inside me trying to recapture the imagined thrill of the pioneers who came through this pass on foot and horseback. Seated in an automobile, hemmed in by a horde of Sunday afternoon maniacs, one can’t possibly experience the emotion which such a scene should produce in the human breast.” Miller denounced the automobile as a “symbol of falsity and illusion.”

His bitterness toward the car echoes into the present. Miller was prophetic in describing the auto as a scourge of nature rather than a tonic for the soul. His disaffection is sideswiped by Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957), the best-known highway book of the century, which is both a protest against Eisenhowerera conformity and a self-celebration of Whitmanesque proportions. The prose is pure high-octane wanderlust; the reader doesn’t even have to know what Kerouac meant by “the mad road, keening in a seizure of tarpaulin power” to understand this portrait of a beat generation questing for the heroic. On the Road ’s language is exhilarating, and Kerouac’s societal indictments get lost in his romantic rush to blaze across America in a big, shiny, tail-finned car, listening to Dizzy Gillespie blow jazz on the radio, eating pie ala mode in Iowa, talking about the Old West in Manhattan, shooting pool in San Francisco’s Chinatown, working as a migrant laborer in California, drinking cervezas in Old Mexico, and all the while searching for “It”—“the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever.” A Hoosier Holiday had primed its readers to take automobile sightseeing vacations; On the Road exhorted them to reconsider their lives.

The book made Jack Kerouac forever synonymous with tales of the highway, and few other novels can have caused so many restless people to wander their nation contemplating the nature of existence. Not surprisingly, much of the best road literature of the 1960s and 1970s owes a debt to Kerouac. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), for example, is a classic hybrid of Thoreau and Kerouac, a road guide to spiritual recuperation that can be seen as an early progenitor of so-called New Age literature. But as Pirsig traveled America, it was a dog-eared copy of Waiden he packed in his motorcycle’s saddlebags because “it can be read a hundred times without exhaustion.”

PIRSIG, INTRODUCED A NEW ELE ment to the road story: rock ’n’ roll. Of course, rock music in all its guises—country, blues, Motown—has drawn every bit as much on cars as on sex and whiskey. Many of Chuck Berry’s hits make mention of them, and it is hard to imagine Bob Dylan writing the lyrics for his album Highway 61 Revisited without first having devoured Kerouac’s opus. The same can be assumed of most of the frenetic and impressionistic New Journalists of the counterculture era, particularly Tom Wolfe in his essay on the stockcar driver Junior Johnson and in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), in which Neal Cassady drives Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus “ FURTHUR ” across America, responding only to the nickname Speed Limit. Movies of the era such as Easy Rider celebrated the road in a no-holds-barred hippie fashion—even if that one ends with the protagonists being shotgunned.

That violent end of the road found its Boswell in Hunter S. Thompson, whose Hell’s Angels (1967) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) are model studies of the terror that could descend upon Whitman’s Open Road. By the time Thompson’s character Raoul Duke got through destroying half the rent-a-cars in Vegas with a head full of scotch, speed, and LSD, the term road trip had taken on an entirely new meaning. Yet Thompson admitted that the automobile was hardly an outlaw symbol; in fact, it had become synonymous with suburban middle-class conformity. “Old elephants limp off to the hills to die,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing . “Old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death in huge cars.”

Yet, just as most Americans in the 1960s and 1970s supported the Vietnam War despite its lively literary detractors, they also refused to let Kerouac and Company hijack the more traditional, serene road narrative from their literary predecessors. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (1962), Erskine Caldwell’s Around About America (1964), and William Saroyan’s Short Drive, Sweet Chariot (1966), for example, are in the same sociological vein as A Hoosier Holiday : just some more world-renowned authors with silver hair and wrinkles trying to get back in touch with an American landscape they had lost track of. Saroyan, nearly sixty, found spiritual awakening behind the wheel of a Buick: “It isn’t simply driving at night, it is going on … to find out what’s out there now, not so much along the highway, in the terrain, under the sky, but in the interior of the driver himself.” So, if On the Road had inspired a million denim-clad teenagers to hit the highways of America in search of themselves, then Travels With Charley did the same for the senior citizens, who hurried out to buy Winnebagos, join “Good Sam Clubs,” and go, Go, GO with big dogs in tow to find the promised land of yesteryear.

“Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconsciousness,” Steinbeck wrote. “This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking.” Thus, older, more traditional American writers also used the automobile to lubricate reflections on the American dream. John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, for instance, traced the cycle of Harry Angstrom’s repeated flights down the highway from domestic unhappiness and then back again to family obligation— and his car dealership.

By the late 1970s the road had become more popular than ever. These folks heading out on vacation in the family station wagon were not reading On the Road and popping “black beauties” to make time. They just wanted to “see America” and enjoy everything in it, from Mount Rushmore to the stuffed jackalopes in curio shops throughout the Southwest. If the suburban set read any hook at all, it was probably Peter Jenkins’s 1979 blockbuster A Walk Across America , which was so inoffensive that both Hilly Graham and Oral Roberts recommended it to their congregations.

And while what had by then been christened the silent majority regarded the “CBS Evening News” anchorman Walter Cronkite as the most trusted man in America, his good humored sidekick Charles kuralt was a close second, thanks to his “On the Road” video features that celebrated small-town values and rural wonderments. In addition to his television reports and specials, Kuralt wrote no fewer than three “On the Road” hooks, all of which went to the top of the bestseller lists. Adding to this mainstreaming of road literature was William Least 11 eat Moon’s 1982 Blue Highways , a disgruntled English professor’s account of touring America’s back roads by van with a copy of Leaves of Grass always in reach. Moon, like Dreiser sixty-six years before him, sought out the authentic nooks and crannies in a nation overrun with industrialization, and an eager reading public was reassured by his affirmation that all was not lost. Like kuralt, Moon took a personally cathartic road trip and generally came home with a happy report on the state of the nation. After a turn down darker highways, the road book had returned to the optimism of its genre’s progenitor, A Hoosier Holiday .

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