RoadFrames: The American Highway Narrative

By Hagen, William M. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

RoadFrames: The American Highway Narrative


Hagen, William M., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


RoadFrames: The American Highway Narrative. Kris Lackey. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

What has "the road" meant to American travelers? Kris Lackey attempts to answer this question, building on his extensive reading and experience in teaching what must have been a fascinating class at the University of New Orleans-"The American Highway Narrative."

Lackey founds his study on fifty nonfiction and fifteen fictional narratives written in the age of the automobile. Most of the time, he is able to direct the traffic of all the titles he has read, by favoring ample accounts of a given narrative's relevance before moving on. Most of the time, too, Lackey is able to shape what he says about even the more mawkish effusions of road-entranced narrators into substantial, even witty assessments, on public transportation, the illusion of an independent self and choices that can be made as easily as a turn of the steering wheel, the possibility of a new self to be discovered in transit, the experiential costs of speed and always moving on, the anticipation of conflict for black travelers, and, finally, the possibility of loss, a trip to nowhere.

While the structure fills out the parts of a larger story, it does so at same expense of any given text being examined, especially since, of necessity, different aspects of the same work may be examined in different chapters. Except in the last two chapters, on black travel narratives and on (white) romances of the road, RoadFrames is only indirectly a "reader's guide" to books of travel. Neither is it, primarily, cultural history or sociology; the binding elements are experiential or literary-philosophical (transcendental).

In these narratives, Lackey finds one large contradiction, one nullity, aspirations of transcendence, and contrarian views. The large contradiction, underlying everything, has to do with our eager acceptance of technology. When the automobile drives smoothly, the gap between subject and object can disappear in a glow of union with country; when it doesn't, we can be slaves to the damned machine. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath shows, among other things, the extent to which an overloaded, failing vehicle can narrow the whole consciousness to its every hesitation. By the same token, black narratives show how the insecurity of travel in white America can short circuit the personal sense of freedom needed for a Romantic epiphany. And nullity awaits one in the dazed consciousness, the numbing of perception that accompanies so much interstate travel, leading someone like William Least Heat-Moon to take the slower drives on "blue highways."

The aspiration to or expression of transcendence often has religious overtones. "Americans have found the healing of God in a variety of things, the most pleasant of which is probably automobile drives," asserts William Saroyan in 1966. Not that RoadFrames heralds the advent of a religion of Ford or Chevrolet, but it does envision the automobile as a doorway, or better, a window on what we call America. …

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