Deborah Clarke’s Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America is both an achievement and a disappointment. Insofar as it is possible to disentangle the work of an author from the community in which he or she operates, the achievement is Clarke’s, whereas the disappointment originates in the politics of the academic community to which this author belongs and the university presses that (supposedly) sustain most of the academic criticism that is published these days.
The achievement is methodological and thematic. Clarke has selected a spectacular and enormously difficult topic to deal with. The automobile permeates twentieth-century American fiction as no other object has done. Moreover, the motorcar crosses classes, genders, races, ethnicities, religious affiliations, as well as the divide between high literature and popular culture. Fully aware of the vastness of her endeavor, Clarke has delimited her sphere of inquiry to the novel and, for the most part, to female novelists and the way the association between automobile and women has opened new spaces in the literary imagination and the social sphere with regard to gender, its configurations, and power relations in the construction of American identity. However, mindful of the importance and the usefulness of reading women’s representations of the car against men’s, she repeatedly touches on canonical male writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Kerouac, DeLillo, Richard Ford, and Harry Crews, all of whom have powerfully used the car in their fiction. In the second of the five chapters that along with the theoretical introduction and a brief epilogue make the book, she also dedicates a small section to cars in the fiction of William Faulkner, the subject of her previous book.
Clarke rightly observes that the automobile is at once a symbol and a concrete object. On the basis of this premise, she widens the context of her topic by digging into other sources, primarily popular journalism and advertising, but also statistics and psychological studies of the car’s impact on Americans.
This interdisciplinarity, reminiscent of Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, serves Clarke well. It enables her to expand the context of her topic and her argument thematically and aesthetically in order to bring into her essay external information that enriches the reading of the novels she selected. As the book unfolds, the literary roads that she travels open up the new spaces and positions evoked at the beginning of the essay. Clarke takes the reader on a literary [End Page 902] tour that starts with early female drivers and writers of the beginning of the twentieth century, continues with celebrated modernists such as Virginia Woolf, and ends with a significant number of contemporary female novelists, from the usual suspects such as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Louis Erdrich, to less celebrated writers such as Marjorie Garber, Dorothy Allison, Cynthia Kadohata, and Helena Viramontes.
In turn, this critical move allows Clarke to expose the lack of critical material dedicated to the automobile by scholars of American literature. While sociological and historical studies about the automobile in American history and life abound, surprisingly (and significantly) there are very few studies of cars in literature, which is telling given the obsessive presence of the car in twentieth-century American literature. In this respect, Clarke’s book is an especially important contribution to the study of twentieth-century American literature.
Driving Women starts filling a void in an important way precisely because of its author’s decision to approach a topic that traditionally evokes the world of men and masculinity from the standpoint of women’s fiction, with the overall goal to depict and build a different world and canon. Clarke has tried to suggest a different tradition from that which is apparent in such works as Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and the Electric Runabout, or, the Speediest Car on Earth; Sinclair Lewis’s Free Air, Main Street, Babitt, and Dodsworth; or The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and On the Road. Her study also, of course, breaks from most...