Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America

Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America

Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America

Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America


Rising gas prices, sprawl and congestion, global warming, even obesity- driving is a factor in many of the most contentious issues of our time. So how did we get here? How did automobile use become so vital to the identity of Americans?Republic of Driverslooks back at the period between 1895 and 1961- from the founding of the first automobile factory in America to the creation of the Interstate Highway System- to find out how driving evolved into a crucial symbol of freedom and agency. Cotten Seiler combs through a vast number of historical, social scientific, philosophical, and literary sources to illustrate the importance of driving to modern American conceptions of the self and the social and political order. He finds that as the figure of the driver blurred into the figure of the citizen, automobility became a powerful resource for women, African Americans, and others seeking entry into the public sphere. And yet, he argues, the individualistic but anonymous act of driving has also monopolized our thinking about freedom and democracy, discouraging the crafting of a more sustainable way of life. As our fantasies of the open road turn into fears of a looming energy crisis, Seiler shows us just how we ended up a republic of drivers- and where we might be headed.


You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all
that is here.

I believe that much unseen is also here. —Walt Whitman

Almost from the moment of the Interstate Highway System's authorization in 1956, historians, sociologists, geographers, political scientists, urban planners, journalists, cultural critics, and artists have ruminated on the far-reaching effects of cars and highways on transportation and work patterns, the environment, social customs, and popular culture. The resulting body of work ranges in rigor from treatise to frolic, and varies in tone from outraged to elegiac to resigned to celebratory. Nearly all of it, however, characterizes the Interstate Highway System as an agent of epochal rupture. As the historian Tom Lewis tells his readers in the introduction to Divided Highways, “This is the story of consequences, how for better and worse the Interstates have changed our lives.”

Beyond this common thesis, however, these works tend to cleave down a predictably partisan line, their titles promising evidence of how the interstates built or ruined the nation, empowered or enslaved its population. In finding in the momentous coming of the interstates either triumphant progress, liberation of the self, destruction of the environment and society, or the loss of national innocence, the authors of these emotive works reproduce, implicitly or explicitly, the ideology of American excep-

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