Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main - PDF

Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main Zentrum für Nordamerika Forschung (ZENAF) Center for North American Studies ZENAF Arbeits- und Forschungsberichte (ZAF) Nr. 1 / 2003 Andrew Gross California

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Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main Zentrum für Nordamerika Forschung (ZENAF) Center for North American Studies ZENAF Arbeits- und Forschungsberichte (ZAF) Nr. 1 / 2003 Andrew Gross California Automobile Tourism and Consumer Culture in American Literature, 1916 to 1939 Copyright by Andrew Gross Zentrum für Nordamerika-Forschung Center for North American Studies Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Robert-Mayer-Strasse Frankfurt / Main Tel.: (069) / 22 homepage: Federal Republic of Germany Zusammenfassung / Abstract: This paper studies one of the earliest forms of modern consumer culture the road book in relation to one of the early utopias of modern consumption California. Criticism has traditionally treated the road book as an extension of a loosely defined transcendentalist project, where drivers take to the open road to discover themselves in nature. The determinate context, however, is corporate rather than literary-historical. The earliest road books were advertisements. Their itineraries linked up with other spatial technologies (e.g. the conveyor belts in automobile plants and modern highways), transforming space into a vast production and distribution network. Production and distribution intersected in California, the state with the most automobiles per capita and the destination of most early road trips. The first section of the paper considers the journey to California from the perspective of Emily Post, who would later become a famous writer on etiquette. Post s book is the narrative equivalent to the standardized roadside architecture, converting local difference into a tourist attraction, and local (especially ethnic) identity into a commodity. The next section considers the effects of commercial homogenization on gender, focusing on the moment when some women, taking the steering wheel, assumed agency as consumers. The primary texts here are some of the early novels of Sinclair Lewis, along with examples of sociology and advertising copy from the 1920s and 1930s. The final section analyzes the WPA Guidebook to California as a federal attempt to re-map corporate space the space of tourist attractions and consumers according to a progressive ideal. All three sections treat the tour form as a spatial and literary structure a privileged topos, at once geographical and symbolic, where complex relations between identity and place are negotiated in the form of a journey. There is a convention in literature and criticism, already a cliché by the invention of the automobile, depicting the road as a symbol of freedom and a means of escape. The earliest American accounts of driving represent tourists as rugged adventurers. Horatio Nelson Jackson s From Ocean to Ocean in a Winton (1903), a pamphlet describing the first transcontinental automobile trip, uses the freedom-of-the-road convention to market the early, two-cylinder car named in the title. Log of an Auto Prairie Schooner, an article appearing in Sunset Magazine nine years later, depicts 18 tourists, each of whom paid $875 to take a guided tour, as a band of rugged pioneers. 1 Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, and Henry James depict the car as an anti-modern technology, allowing driver and passengers to escape the noisy, crowded city. Even Emily Post s By Motor to Golden Gate (1916), a book explicit about the importance of good hotels, good restaurants, and good etiquette, indulges in an occasional fantasy about horse-drawn wagons and cowboys. 2 Contemporary literary critics tend to take these frontier fantasies at face value, treating driving as an expression of independence, the car as a symbol of freedom. 3 This is, however, only half the picture. If driving is personally liberating, it is also one of the primary forces behind commercial standardization. As the geographer John Jakle points out in The Tourist: Travel in Twentieth-Century North America (1985), with improved highways and the rise of roadside commerce, regional differences were obscured beneath a veneer of roadside homogeneity (199). Early highways gave birth to the first business franchises, which pioneered the use of standardized architecture and packaging. Gas stations came first with their functional design and easily recognizable logos (Lewis 283). Next came restaurant chains like Howard Johnsons, then the hotels and motels (Lewis 284). At the same time, billboards for Burma Shave and a host of other products plastered the roadside with nationally recognizable brand names. The most recognizable brands were those of the cars themselves, which were among the first products to display their make on the outside. If personal freedom was an authentic part of the driving experience, it was also the alibi of a new regime of consumption. The early drivers who enjoyed a degree of mobility unimaginable a few years before, found themselves confronted by the standardized landscape their own mobility helped create. This confluence of personal mobility and standardization marked the birth of consumer culture, which might be defined as that combination of overproduction and advertising necessary for the widespread distribution of standardized goods. Consumer culture 1 We were motorists as far west as Chicago. Then we became pioneers (191). Since I have been unable to locate copies of this book or Across the Continent in a Winton, this information comes from the most comprehensive bibliography of early road books, Autos Across America by Carey S. Bliss. 2 We might have been taking an unconscious part in some vast moving picture production, or, more easily still, if we overlooked the fact of our own motor car, we could have supposed ourselves crossing the plains in the days of the caravans and the stage coaches, when roads were trails, and bridges were not! (135). 3 See Rondald Primeau s Romance of the Road (1996) and Kris Lackey s Road Frames (1997). emerged when personal mobility, once a sign of luxury, began to colonize the needs of everyday life. By 1910 Herbert L. Towle, a writer for Harper s Weekly, was already discussing the distinct needs of a new class of owners who depend on their automobiles for necessary daily transportation. (The article was then included in The Locomobile Book of 1911 as an endorsement for that brand of car [Locomobile 251]). 4 In 1913 Ford responded to this need with the assembly line, bringing the average price of the Model T down from $850 to $525 (Lewis 33). That same year or the year after, Standard Oil, Gulf, and Shell started building look-alike filling stations in cities and along rural roads (Jakle and Sculle 1984, 132). By 1916 there were over three and a half million automobiles and a quarter million trucks on the road, inducing Woodrow Wilson to sign into law the first Federal-Aid Road Act (Lewis 11). 5 Private enterprise did not wait for the government to build roads on its own initiative. Carl Graham Fisher, the owner of a headlight manufacturing company, proposed the transcontinental road that would soon be named the Lincoln Highway the same year that Henry Ford invented the assembly line. By WWI, the assembly line and the road already constituted a continuous trajectory of production and consumption. 6 The standardized workstations along the conveyor belt mirrored the restaurants, motels, gas stations, and other points of consumption growing up alongside the highway. John Jakle and Keith Sculle 7 call the principle governing this hyper-efficient terrain of consumption place-product-packaging. Place-product-packaging describes commercial places formed through coordination of architecture, decor, product, service, and operating routine across multiple locations the chain of stores that conforms to a set business system (Jakle and Sculle 1999, x). There is no doubt that place-product-packaging opened up the countryside to drivers who knew they would be able to find gas, food, and lodging almost anywhere, but it also reduced regional variation and consumer choice. In By Motor to the Golden Gate (1916), Emily Post complained that towns were all beginning to look the same (88). The same year, Theodore Dreiser complained that even small town kids were wearing New York style clothes (163). This tension between standardization and freedom is at the heart of the driving experience. This tension is also at the heart of the road book as literary genre. If road books borrow from the traditional travel narrative, they also constitute a new form of advertising. From the very beginning road books were deeply involved in the proliferation of brand 4 In 1915 Towle wrote an article for Scribner s entitled Women at the Wheel in which he asked the essential question: Have the women suddenly gained courage [to drive cars], or have motor-cars altogether lost their formidable mien? The answer: Something of both, no doubt, but especially something of the latter (Scribner s 214). The women at the wheel, and those who do not have access to it, will be the subject of my next chapter. In Echoes of the Jazz Age F. Scott Fitzgerald points out another aspect of the growing importance of the car in everyday life: As far back as 1915 the unchaperoned young people of the smaller cities had discovered the mobile privacy of that automobile given to young Bill at sixteen to make him self-reliant (14-15). 5 While president of Princeton, Wilson had famously decried the car as an incitement to class hatred. 6 In Drift and Mastery (1914), Walter Lippmann observed that By the time goods are ready for the ultimate consumer they have traveled hundreds of miles, passed through any number of wholesalers, jobbers, middlemen and what not. The simple act of buying has become a vast, impersonal thing which the ordinary man is quite incapable of performing without all sorts of organized aid (53). 7 John Jakle and Keith Sculle have analyzed several aspects of roadside architecture in The Gas Station in America (1994), The Motel in America (1996), and Fast Food (1999). names. Many of them were actually advertisements published for and often by auto companies. After Horatio Nelson Jackson s From Ocean to Ocean in a Winton was published by the Winton Motor Carriage Co. in 1903, Oldsmobile and the Weed Chain Tire Grip Co. printed their own accounts in 1905, followed by the H. H. Franklin Co. in 1906, Brush Runabout in 1908, the Overland Automobile Co. in 1910, Pathfinder in 1912, Packard in 1913, Ford in 1914, Stutz, Saxon, and Pathfinder, etc. The advertisements were effective. 8 Emily Post, among others, claimed she decided to drive across country in 1915 because of the advertisements (Post 2). Many automobile brochures were longer than traditional advertisements, some of them extending to over 250 pages in length. The expanded format, much longer than the typical billboard, newspaper, and catalogue advertisements of the day, provided ample space to both list and narrate the qualities of the product. The narratives overlap in the same way that commercial territories overlap in the corporate landscape: the settings, themes, and characters all borrow from and complement one another, resulting in a rigid economy of forms or standardized package aimed at the distribution of the central product the automobile. The automotive section in the Sunset Magazine of April 1915 is a case in point. The 16-page story by L. W. Peck about driving Over the Lincoln Highway to the Coast contains eleven automotive ads, many of them full-page. Taken together they are an early example of what media professionals now call synergy a deliberate blending of content and advertising designed to achieve the total presentation of a product. 9 Peak s cheerful tale of driving across the country reads like a puff for a road that, according to Emily Post, who drove it the same year, was in some sections all but impassable. 10 The narrative does, however, provide the setting necessary for the advertisements sandwiched into its pages. One Oldsmobile ad shows a scene that might as well be taken from Peak s trip: a group crossing a fast stream, complete with captioned dialogue attesting to the ability of the car to meet any task. The magazine itself functions as a retail catalogue, listing advertisements in a separate index. The automotive section offers the textual equivalent of standardization and place-productpackaging. Road books should be understood as an innovation in advertising. They mobilize the myths and symbols of the frontier, the conventions of travel writing, and the thematic of selfdiscovery in order to represent the car as a commodity. 11 The object is not simply to sell a 8 This information comes from Carey S. Bliss useful annotated bibliography, Autos Across America: A Bibliography of Transcontinental Automobile Travel: (1972). 9 Synergy is not a new concept in the media. In his 1924 book The Ethics of Journalism, Nelson Crawford claims that in the early part of the century advertisers were inserting in their contracts with publishers a clause making the contracts voidable if any laws restricting the sale of patent medicines were passed, or if any matter prejudicial to the interests of the medicine manufacturer appeared in the paper (14). It is unlikely that anything so blatant occurred with automotive advertising, but it was undoubtedly in the best interest of publications like Sunset Magazine, which relied heavily on advertising revenues, to run stories favorable to the automotive industry, even if that meant exaggerating the quality of roads. 10 Thirty-six miles out of Chicago we met the Lincoln Highway and from the first found it a disappointment. As the most important, advertised and lauded road in our country, its first appearance was not engaging [Y]ou dream of a wide straight road like the Route Nationale of France, or state roads in the East, and you wake rather unhappily to the actuality of a meandering dirt road that becomes mud half a foot deep after a day or two of rain! (Post 67). 11 Baudrillard argues that consumer culture is born when signs become commodified and commodities take on the function of signs: Today consumption if this term as [sic] a meaning other than that given it by vulgar economics defines precisely the stage where the particular kind of car; many of the more highbrow road books refrain from mentioning brand names at all. Rather, it is to sell a new lifestyle based on personal mobility and consumer choice. 12 In early road books, California is both the symbol for this kind of consumer freedom and the space in which it operates. There is a long tradition of road books treating California as a theme and a destination, from Steinbeck to Henry Miller to Keroac. The tradition goes back to the Spanish Conquistadors searching for El Dorado, amplified, of course, during the years of the Gold Rush. By the time rail and then auto travel made long-distance tourism relatively easy, California had become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. However, California was not only an ideal destination but an ideal space for the use of cars. California led the nation in the ratio of car registration to population in both 1910 and 1929 (Ling 13). In America the average ratio for 1929 was one car for every five people; in LA it was one for every three. No European country approximated these figures until the 1960s (Ling 75). This paper will concentrate on a few early road books, all heading west, to map out California as the new terrain of consumer culture. It will follow three roughly chronological phases: 1) The representation of California as the frontier in an increasingly standardized landscape. 2) The representation of the West as a site of liberation, especially for women, and as the field of consumer choice. 3) The representation of California as a utopian ideal, a place where social tensions are bureaucratically managed, and where local difference, already diminished in the standardized landscape, is reproduced as a tourist attraction. I. Standardization and the Frontier I begin with the road book by Emily Post, the New York socialite who later became famous as a syndicated etiquette writer. Post, her nephew, and another female traveling companion set out from New York in 1915 to drive as far west as luxuriously possible (3). They abjured the greater luxury of the train because Post felt it would be impossible to open the book of her own country from the back of a Pullman (3). This dialectic between luxury and independence is at the heart of much modern tourism. The tourist wants to cross boundaries, to strike out on her own, to do something uncommon, to see something new but not at the expense of certain creature comforts. What Post discovers is that the creature comforts actually interfere with her encounter of difference. Cheyenne, Colorado, for instance, is no longer a frontier town, but a modern city with paved streets and hotels (116). commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as sign value, and where signs (culture) are produced as commodities (Baudrillard 147, italics in original). This confluence of sign and commodity begins with automobile advertising. 12 For accounts of the role of advertising in the production of new lifestyles, see Stuart Ewen s Captains of Consciousness (1976) and Alan Trachtenberg s The Incorporation of America (1982). What remains of the past is an annual Wild West Show (118); another western town exhibits a few stuffed buffaloes as a memorial to absent herds (91). Post finds that most small towns follow the standard decorating and architectural trends (24), often sacrificing their uniqueness to look like little New Yorks (88). In a landscape designed to be comfortable, Post is confined to the standard. Post quickly discovers that what she needs is trouble too keep her, and her readers, engaged (148). While she always remains the white-glove tourist, interested in the comfort and cleanliness of hotels and restaurants above all else, she begins, almost against her will, to look for difficulties to punctuate her narrative. She articulates the following premise as her motor philosophy : in motoring, as in life, since trouble gives character, obstacles and misadventures are really necessary to give the trip character (44). Thus Post only discovers the West after she has to suffer for it: like the Sleeping Beauty in the fairy-tale, she says, the beauty sleeping in the Southwest is surrounded by a thorn hedge of hardships and discomfort that presents its most impenetrable thicket and sharpest spines to the motorist (175). Post s allusion to the fairy tale is revealing. The hardships in her narrative are fabulous inventions the pastime of a tourist with an expensive English racer and time to use it. Suffering, for Post, is a kind of slumming; it stages authenticity to borrow the phrase Dean MacCannell uses in The Tourist (1976). In many places Post s book admits its own staging. In the following passage, Post and her party discover the West at precisely the moment they begin to feel like stars in their own film: We might have been taking an unconscious part in some vast moving picture production, or, more easily still, if we overlooked the fact of our own motor car, we could have supposed ourselves crossing the plains in the days of the caravans and stage coaches, when roads were trails, and bridges were not! (135) The movie scene is no more authentic than the Wild West shows and stuffed buffalos Post derides elsewhere in the narrative. It is more convincing, however, because it embodies a touristic relation of subjectivity to space. One critic argues that the way the landscape moves across a film screen mimics the way it slides pass the windshield: in both cases it appears that the landscape is in motion and not the traveler; or, rather, that the landscape is in motion for the traveler (Schnapp 22, italics in original). The motion-picture metaphor is very common in road narratives. In a 1915 article in Scribner s called Motorin
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