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Title:Motorcars and magic highways: the automobile and communication in twentieth-century American literature and film
Author(s):Vredenburg, Jason
Director of Research:Hutner, Gordon
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Hutner, Gordon
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Bauer, Dale M.; Capino, Jose B.; Newcomb, John T.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):American Literature
Cinema Studies
State Power
Hardboiled Detective
Film Noir
Abstract:ABSTRACT Motorcars and Magic Highways examines the nexus between transportation and communication in the development of the automobile across the twentieth century. While early responses to the automobile emphasized its democratizing and liberating potential, the gradual integration of the automobile with communications technologies and networks over the twentieth century helped to organize and regulate automobile use in ways that would advance state and corporate interests. Where the telegraph had separated transportation and communication in the nineteenth century, the automobile’s development reintegrates these functions through developments like the two-way radio, car phones, and community wireless networks. As I demonstrate through a cultural study of literature and film, these new communications technologies contributed to the standardization and regulation of American auto-mobility. Throughout this process, however, authors and filmmakers continued to turn to the automobile as a vehicle of social critique and resistance. Chapter one, “Off the Rails: Potentials of Automobility in Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis,” establishes the transformative potential that early users saw in the automobile. I argue that Wharton’s A Motor-Flight Through France (1908), for instance, offers the motorcar as a means of helping the leisure traveler develop a better sense of history and cultivating an aesthetic sensibility superior to that of the railroad passenger. Compared to the railway--a social force that standardized space and time and regulated mobility through fixed routes and schedules--all three writers believe the automobile makes the traveler more independent and provides a closer communion with the natural world. Chapter two contrasts the linear, rational thinkers who characterize literary detectives from Sherlock Holmes through the Golden Age of Detective fiction with the hardboiled heroes of Dashiell Hammett and his disciples. I argue that while the former align with a society organized around rail travel and the telegraph, the hardboiled detective novel reflects the public’s shifting relationship with police and state power as a result of the rise of the automobile’s new power to communicate through the two-way radio. Hardboiled detectives have an adverse relationship with often corrupt police departments who serve economic elites rather than the public interest. The success of these detectives depends not on mastery of arcane knowledge, but on physical strength and a mastery of geographic space, in contrast to the close confines of the English country house or the locked room. Finally, while the linear thinking and rational deduction of earlier detectives are aligned with the railway, hardboiled detective methods, which rely on gut instincts and agile, inductive reasoning capable of following disparate threads that appear and disappear suddenly, reflect the speed and independent mobility of the automobile. Chapter three continues the analysis of the communicative automobile and the unstable urban space it creates by examining film noir. I argue that the automobile is a significant yet relatively unexamined element in film noir: the editing, shot composition, and special effects used in automobile scenes in such films as Double Indemnity (1944) evoke an unstable urban landscape that the automobile transforms: constantly shifting, difficult to navigate, devoid of landmarks, and concealing threats and snares from seemingly every direction. At the same time, films noir also reveal that many of the potential advantages perceived in the early stages of the automobile now lie unfulfilled. Double Indemnity picks up the comparison of automobile and the railway that characterized Wharton’s, Dreiser’s, and Lewis’s texts, but the flexibility and freedom identified in those early texts have now devolved into impulsiveness and criminality. While the early automobile offered escape from the structural control and surveillance of the railway, films such as The Killers (1946) and Out of the Past (1947) reveal that the transportation infrastructure growing up around the automobile has rendered such escape unlikely. Chapter four explores the public desire to communicate from the automobile to the outside world. The car radio made it possible for the state and corporations to broadcast to the automobile, but government regulations largely restricting the two-way radio to police departments and emergency services made it impossible to speak back. I demonstrate the anxiety of this violation of the autonomy of the automobile through close readings of Ralph Ellison, Hunter S. Thompson, and Allen Ginsberg. Furthermore, I argue that artists responded to this imbalance by incorporating electronic communications equipment and the automobile into their compositional process. Examining the production histories and offering close readings of Tom Wolfe,. Thompson, and Ginsberg, I demonstrate that such writers combined communication technology and the automobile to create new artistic forms, such as New Journalism, and to compose critiques of American militarism and consumer culture. Chapter five, “Solitary Bartlebies: Resistance to the Superhighway in Kerouac and Didion” examines Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1971) in the context of the rise of the superhighway and the birth of the Interstate Highway System. Through a history of the superhighway, I demonstrate that the prevailing ethic was one of maximizing individual and national productivity. Like Melville’s Bartleby, whose refrain “I would prefer not to” confounds his employer, Kerouac’s and Didion’s protagonists refuse submission, expressing their resistance through the automobile. Kerouac’s Sal Paradise rejects the superhighway and its productivity ethic, instead hitching across the nation’s back roads in an effort to establish new forms of community. Maria Wyeth in Play It as It Lays, on the other hand, subverts the superhighway ethic by ritually circulating through the Los Angeles highway system aimlessly without destination. The final chapter, “Decline and Collapse on the Magic Highway,” examines the development of and the artistic response to the intelligent traffic systems and fully communicative automobiles that characterize driving in the twenty-first century. Late twentieth-century writers have associated this new stage of the automobile with decline and collapse. Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis details the full and final convergence of communications technology and the automobile, along with its dangers and possibilities, featuring a fund manager who crashes the global economy from the backseat of his limousine while driving across New York City. In many ways, this final integration of communication and transportation closes off many of the possibilities early motorists saw in the automobile, strengthening the neo-conservative state by enabling direct and indirect control of individual mobility and strengthening corporations by intensifying the relationship between mobility and commercial consumption.
Issue Date:2013-08-22
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Jason Vredenburg
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-08-22
Date Deposited:2013-08

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