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Driving Women

Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America

Deborah Clarke

Publication Year: 2007

Over the years, cars have helped to define the experiences and self-perceptions of women in complex and sometimes unexpected ways. When women take the wheel, family structure and public space are reconfigured and re-gendered, creating a context for a literary tradition in which the car has served as a substitute for, an escape from, and an extension of the home, as well as a surrogate mother, a financial safeguard, and a means of self-expression. Driving Women examines the intersection of American fiction—primarily but not exclusively by women—and automobile culture. Deborah Clarke argues that issues critical to twentieth-century American society—technology, mobility, domesticity, and agency—are repeatedly articulated through women's relationships with cars. Women writers took surprisingly intense interest in car culture and its import for modern life, as the car, replete with material and symbolic meaning, recast literal and literary female power in the automotive age. Clarke draws on a wide range of literary works, both canonical and popular, to document women's fascination with cars from many perspectives: historical, psychological, economic, ethnic. Authors discussed include Wharton, Stein, Faulkner, O’Connor, Morrison, Erdrich, Mason, Kingsolver, Lopez, Kadohata, Smiley, Senna, Viramontes, Allison, and Silko. By investigating how cars can function as female space, reflect female identity, and reshape female agency, this engaging study opens up new angles from which to approach fiction by and about women and traces new directions in the intersection of literature, technology, and gender.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix


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pp. xi-xii

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INTRODUCTION: Writing and Automobility

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pp. 1-9

Few objects epitomize American identity more than the automobile. Although it was not born in the U.S.A., we have claimed the car as our own. As Cynthia Dettelbach has noted, “In America, the automobile shapes—and haunts—the imagination” (120). The car therefore shapes and haunts American literature. It also shapes and haunts our material lives. According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers,...

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1. Women on Wheels: "A threat at yesterday's order of things"

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pp. 10-40

...“Every time a woman learns to drive—and thousands do every year—it is a threat at yesterday’s order of things,” wrote Ray W. Sherman in a 1927 issue of Motor (qtd. in Scharff 117). Given the influence of the automobile on twentieth-century America, it would seem that the presence of the car itself constituted a serious threat to “yesterday’s order of things.” But Sherman’s statement makes a vitally important point: it is...

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2. Modernism: Racing and Gendering Automobility

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pp. 41-72

In no era of American life was the automobile more significant than during the period of modernism. Automobile production rose from 4,000 in 1900 to 187,000 in 1910 (Rae 33). By 1914, the year after Ford began assembly line production, sales of the Model T alone reached nearly 270,000 (see Rae 61). By the 1920s the auto industry was the largest in the nation; by 1927 the United States was home to 80 percent of the...

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3. My Mother the Car? Auto Bodies and Maternity

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pp. 73-110

In September 1965 one of the strangest sitcoms ever debuted on NBC: My Mother the Car. It had a blessedly short life, lasting only a year. Dave Crabtree, played by Jerry Van Dyke, goes to a used car lot in search of a cheap family car. Finding himself drawn to a 1928 Porter (a car that has never existed, assembled for the show from parts of various antique cars), he gets behind the wheel only to have the car begin to talk to...

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4. Getaway Cars: Women's Road Trips

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pp. 111-139

In an essay entitled “Women and Journeys: Inner and Outer” the travel writer Mary Morris asserts that “women’s literature from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf is mostly a literature about waiting, and usually waiting for love. Denied the freedom to roam outside themselves, women turned inward, into their emotions.... For centuries it was frowned upon for women to travel without escort, chaperone, or husband. To...

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5. Mobile Homelessness: Cars and the Restructuring of Home

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pp. 140-164

In 1954 MGM released what would become its highest-grossing comedy to date, The Long, Long Trailer. Undoubtedly, much of the success of the film can be linked to the star power of its two leads, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, then at the height of their popularity, based on the phenomenal success of their TV show, I Love Lucy. The Long, Long Trailer portrays a young newlywed couple, Tracy and Nicholas Collini (with...

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6. Automotive Citizenship: Car as Origin

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pp. 165-191

Cars define one’s place in America; the car you drive reflects not just wealth or status but also something fundamental about your identity: new or used; American or foreign; sporty or utilitarian; SUV or hybrid. Even more than determining a sense of personal identity, however, the car functions as a marker of political and cultural belonging. As Daniel J. Boorstin has observed, “The automobile has been the great...

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EPILOGUE: Writing behind the Wheel

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pp. 192-197

There have been a lot of automotive changes over the past one hundred years; the “merry Oldsmobile” of the first decade of the twentieth century evolved into a negative—“not your father’s Oldsmobile”—and then into extinction, along with many once-familiar names and brands. Time has diminished the dizzying excitement inherent in early-twentieth-century automotive culture as more and more people take...


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pp. 199-204

Works Cited

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pp. 205-216


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pp. 217-225

E-ISBN-13: 9780801891793
E-ISBN-10: 0801891795
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801886171
Print-ISBN-10: 0801886171

Page Count: 226
Illustrations: 14 halftones
Publication Year: 2007