restricted access American Road Narratives: Reimagining Mobility in Literature and Film by Ann Brigham (review)
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Reviewed by
Ann Brigham. American Road Narratives: Reimagining Mobility in Literature and Film. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2015. 251pp.

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...