Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America

January 22, 2009

Despite the American automobile industry's catastrophic decline in popularity, profits and market share, there has been no shortage of scholarly analyses of its historical importance. If pioneering studies were pedestrian accounts of particular cars and companies, they were followed by more sophisticated works that connected automobiles to US values and social changes such as the acceptance of women drivers and the growth of suburbs.

Cotten Seiler's Republic of Drivers elevates this subject to a new level. An associate professor of American studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Seiler brilliantly illuminates the phenomenon of "automobility" as key to US society and culture from 1895 to 1961; from the creation of the US auto industry to the end of the Eisenhower Administration that instituted the Interstate Highway System.

Seiler finds "automobility" first mentioned in a 1961 article by historian John Burnham, but expands its meaning beyond the policies and attitudes discussed by him and other earlier scholars to an idea taking in "commodities, bodies of knowledge, laws, techniques, institutions, environments, nodes of capital, sensibilities, and modes of perception". He shows how automobility has been critical to the spread of American culture.

Central to Seiler's analysis are lengthy, profound observations about the evolving nature of American "individualism". He ties the "possessive individualism" of the late 18th century - albeit for white males only - to mobility. As the nation became urbanised, industrialised and diversified through mass immigration, the concept of individualism changed almost completely. Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 thesis on the closing of the frontier, Frederick Taylor's Scientific Management project of the early 1900s and Herbert Hoover's American Individualism (1922) highlight the reformulated notion of individualism, which was no longer autonomous but instead increasingly fulfilled in large organisations.

Cars have obviously allowed Americans to exercise individuality in countless opportunities, starting with basic decisions about which vehicles best reflect consumers' class, gender and personality. Seiler's remarkable contribution shows how other aspects of Americans' freedom and democracy have simultaneously been restricted in ways not necessarily beneficial to everyone's American Dream. For example, he interprets the Interstate Highway System's limited-access roads as symbolising the safe values and locales to which citizens were directed amid the Cold War anxieties and corporate hype of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Seiler's story begins well after the first two centuries of European settlement in North America, he might have noted that so-called "closed commercial corporations" were the principal form of colonial expeditions and colonies, and that these entities were by definition oriented toward groups, not individuals. Unfortunately, this "pre-history" of American individualism is, as here, often missed by scholars of later periods.

Seiler has probably read more than anyone else on the broader context of American automobiles, including everything from government documents to drivers' manuals, advertising and popular music. He does not, however, wear his learning lightly. His paragraphs are studded with quotations and other comments from scores of scholars. This makes his text dense and not as readable as, say, Brian Ladd's Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age, published by the same university press. Relegating many references to endnotes (there is no bibliography) would have been a wiser strategy.

Moreover, Republic of Drivers is not for readers lacking the patience to decipher dense, jargon-ridden text, of which "the experience of driving supplied hegemonically appropriate metaphors for political agency, and served to draw potentially oppositional selves into the hegemonic fold" is but one example. Nevertheless, those who manage to read Republic of Drivers will gain an unprecedented appreciation of what automobility has meant and may yet mean. This is a landmark book.

Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America

By Cotten Seiler. University of Chicago Press 240pp, £30.50 and £11.00. ISBN 9780226745633 and 5640. Published 12 December 2008

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