Trends in travel writing may change over time and circumstance, but, Ann Brigham argues in American Road Narratives, one crucial factor remains constant: narratives of travel articulate the meanings and functions of mobility in ways that negotiate shifting ideological currents molding national self-awareness. In other words, mobility is a mode of engagement with the tensions and anxieties that shape conceptions of America and Americanness. “The so-called freedom often associated with mobility,” Brigham suggests, “always occurs in relation to conflicts around the introduction of spatial and social otherness” (9–10). Instead of enabling freedom from the dominant order or escape into a new life, going on the road constitutes a reworking of established norms of gender, class, race, and ethnicity. Some travelers manage to strengthen their sense of identity by “shoring up . . . sameness” and excluding difference, but other travelers “critique such processes by making them visible with their own movements” (10).
While some of the novels, films, and autobiographical texts Brigham analyzes in American Road Narratives are familiar to scholars of travel writing, her study is unique in its incorporation of geographical theories relating to scales of spatial identification. Scales indicate divisions of space and the modes through which humans establish boundaries, differentiate categories of place, and stipulate the activities and functions appropriate to each. Drawing on the work of geographers including Neil Smith, Sallie Marston, and Tim Cresswell, Brigham aims “to scale mobility” (10) in order to show that “mobility is not the escape from space or scale, but rather, one method by which both spaces and scales are constituted and challenged” (12–13). She undertakes this project by focusing on five discrete groupings of travel texts: cross-country touring narratives of the 1910s, post-World War II accounts of men on the road, women’s road narratives of the 1980s and 1990s, late twentieth-century Native American travel texts, and post-9/11 road narratives.
In chapter 1, “Early Road Narratives and the ‘Voyage into Democracy,’” Brigham surveys the field of American travel literature in the early 1900s, noting its tendency to “introduce social differences only to diffuse them” (29), then explores themes of courtship and assimilation in Thomas W. Wilby and Agnes A. Wilby’s On the Trail to Sunset (1912) and Sinclair Lewis’s Free Air (1919). Elucidating various levels of conflict and ambivalence attending the deployment of heterosexual courtship to manage forms of national difference, [End Page 184] especially those of class and ethnicity, Brigham argues convincingly that these texts “position assimilation not only as the destination but as the logic of independence” (52). Chapter 2, “Post-World War II Reorientations of Racialized Masculinity,” addresses perennial favorite On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac, together with John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), and John A. Williams’s This Is My Country Too (1964). Set in times of potentially threatening social change, this collection of texts, Brigham asserts, portray male protagonists undergoing crises of masculinity and searching for something that eludes them, some form of knowledge, validation, or power. Readings in this chapter vary in strength, but taken together show that “mobility may involve dislocation but always enacts a process of incorporation” (105). White men attempting to reorient themselves within a nation undergoing transformation are able to recoup the traditional privilege of white masculinity to “incorporate and assimilate” difference (61). As Williams’s story demonstrates, however, “other” subjects experience considerably more difficulty redefining their relationships to dominant scales of identity.
Chapter 3, “Troubling Scale in Women’s Road Narratives of the 1980s and 1990s,” riffs on the familiar feminist claim that “the personal is the political” to track ways in which “domesticity infiltrates mobility” in women’s travel (106), making “public the hidden forms of power that shape women’s lives” (107). Brigham argues that the novels The Bean Trees (1985) by Barbara Kingsolver and Anywhere but Here (1986) by Mona Simpson and the film Thelma & Louise (1991) redefine spatial relations to demonstrate there is no scale of identification immune to infiltration by patriarchal ideologies. The question, then, becomes how to contest, reconstruct, and mobilize scale to reveal and critique entrenched power structures and relations. In chapter 4, “Agitating Space and Stories: Late Twentieth-Century Native American Road Narratives,” Brigham pairs the novel The Powwow Highway (1979) by David Seals with the film Smoke Signals (1998) to examine Native reversals of American narratives of forward movement as indicative of progressive individualism. As they move within spaces understood as sites of struggle, Brigham shows, Native protagonists reassert Native sensibilities that create critical, productive, and affirming forms of incorporation.
Brigham’s provocative and original chapter 5, “Reviving (Re) Productivity: Post-9/11 Stories of Mobility in the Homeland,” examines road narratives produced after the 9/11 attacks. These narratives, she argues, attempt to reclaim America as a space in which citizens are “capable of creating and pursuing directions of our own making” (189). If the attacks are perceived as perpetrated by outsiders [End Page 185] engaged in transgressive forms of mobility, post-9/11 road stories posit a “mobility of the homeland” based in the “possibility of familial reconciliations across space and time” (188). Brigham suggests that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and the movies Broken Flowers (2005), Transamerica (2005), and Away We Go (2009) present mobile subjects with the potential to recoup “a sense of Americanness by making tangible the country’s territory and history” and “stitching together people and places” (189). Ironically, given the persistent imaginative link between going on the road and freedom from the established social order, in these narratives biological reproduction and inclusive domesticity serve to reclaim mobility for America.
As in any study that seeks to advance a relatively established field, American Road Narratives offers moments of both satisfaction and disappointment. I found the emphasis on scale occasionally awkward and forced, and Brigham unnecessarily downplays and underrates previous scholarly work on travel and travel narratives. In addition to more nuanced engagement with her predecessors, I wished for some explanation of Brigham’s choice of texts; discussion of her selection criteria would have added depth to her analyses and helped to mitigate another concern: the study’s tendency to move back and forth between novels, autobiographical texts, and fiction films without attending to differences in these genres’ conventions for representing and providing access to their protagonists.
Nevertheless, American Road Narratives has many strengths to recommend it. Brigham’s authoritative and wide-ranging familiarity with American travel narratives—ranging from relatively obscure texts such as Lloyd Osbourne’s Three Speeds Forward: An Automobile Love Story (1906) and Emily Post’s By Motor to the Golden Gate (1916) to films such as It Happened One Night (1934) and Nebraska (2013)—enables her to provide productive overviews of the travel literature that emerged in various historical moments within the US. It also enables her to persuasively tie textual trends to the social concerns of different eras. In all, Brigham’s instructively interdisciplinary approach opens an intriguing new route for scholarship in the field of American travel writing. [End Page 186]