GREGORY CLARK Brigham Young University
In any community there is much we could call "public discourse" that does not address, directly at least, matters of policy and politics. Particularly if the community is a national one, the discourse that constitutes and sustains its identity in the minds of the individuals who compose it is a broad and diverse category. This category is especially expansive and unwieldy in communities where print is prevalent, where access to published documents is ready and cheap, and where general literacy is the rule. In the archives of such communities, an historian of rhetoric finds rich resources for an inquiry into how people use their popular and pragmatic discourse, consciously or not, to negotiate and shape the shared sense of individuality within collectivity that constitutes national identity.
This essay is part of a project examining a category of that discourse that has not been treated as rhetorically significant: texts about travel in America, written for Americans by Americans. Texts in this category were widely read because of their utility for travelers and because of the interest they held for people who wanted to imagine themselves traveling. In this essay I am exploring the rhetorical function of one particular tradition within this category: the published discourse of automobile travel that developed during the first two decades of the twentieth century. I find inherent in the texts of this discourse rhetorical elements that seem to have contributed to that transformation of American national identity that resulted in what we call the "modern," and to do so in ways that might enable us to understand better characteristics of the national identity inherited from the culture at the beginning of this century that as the century comes to an end of the century, Americans might want to rethink.
Jack Selzer defines modernism in the United States as a "controversy or conversation -- more a series of semiotic responses and counter-responses to the aesthetic, economic, and social tensions of the first half of the twentieth- century" (3). My purpose in this paper is to explore one interesting and perhaps unexpected source of those tensions -- the advent of cross-country travel by automobile, and the popular public discourse that responded to it. I do so in order to examine the extent to which the American highway, populated by American motorists, emerged early in this century to function there as a sign