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Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (review)

From: American Studies
Volume 50, Number 1/2, Spring/Summer 2009
pp. 130-132 | 10.1353/ams.2011.0087

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Cotten Seiler's Republic of Drivers is an ambitious, intellectually impressive examination of how American intellectual and cultural elites looked to automobility to transform the anachronistic nineteenth-century individualism of Tocqueville and Emerson into one more compatible with the increasingly cooperative demands of life in twentieth-century America. Seiler focuses on two periods, the quarter century before 1920, when the proprietary capitalism of the farm and small business gave way to corporate capitalism, and the 1950s, when individualism seemed just as threatened by the conformity of the national security state and corporate America as by the Soviet Union. "In these moments of danger that threatened capitalist-liberal hegemony by destabilizing its narrative of selfhood," writes Seiler, "automobility performed a crucial restorative role by giving that selfhood a vital form conducive to the existing arrangement of power." (3)

Seiler begins with the demise of the individualist conception of self rooted in production and shows how the celebration of consumer choice partially addressed the loss of workplace autonomy. In this context, the automobile got co-opted to resolve some of the tensions created by the emergence of the new cooperative order. Seiler sides with scholars who argue that Americans did not just adopt the automobile for its utility but "as a meliorative response to the crisis of legitimacy in turn-of-the-century capitalism brought about by the Taylorist transformation of production." (41) But he suggests that driving, and not just buying a car, performed this compensatory function. "Driving's sensations of agency, self-determination, entitlement, privacy, sovereignty, transgression, and speed …," he writes, "were instrumental in establishing automobility as a public good." (41) Driving brought safety problems and government intervention, so the state lent a hand to intellectuals and corporations in creating new subjects for a new order.

In his third chapter Seiler "considers the Interstate Highway System as a component of the postwar 'practical affirmation' of American values demanded by NSC-68 and other cold war rhetoric." (71) He acknowledges the pressures from drivers, corporate interests, and the military to build the interstates, but argues that the Eisenhower administration succeeded in creating the impression that the interstates would be built simply to meet the traditional individual desire for mobility, while obscuring the state's larger interest in creating citizens content with the postwar order. "Automobility performed crucial ideological work at this time," writes Seiler, and the interstates "literally made concrete … individual freedom." (104) Chapter four examines how the interstates provided a new driving experience for African Americans when used with tour books that told them where they could find services that welcomed their business. On the interstates African Americans were drivers first and treated equally by other Americans. Seiler concludes with a chapter on the experience of interstate driving and the role of highway engineers in "reconciling 'competing claims and attractions of subjection and independence.'" (130)

With the automobile, gender is often close at hand. While Seiler pays close attention to gender, the everyday experiences of Americans with automobiles and driving often seem tangential to his main interest in how American conceptions of self as articulated by intellectual and cultural elites changed to serve the needs of corporate and state power. In this sense the book is more intellectual history in the older sense than cultural history, let alone one that focuses on popular culture. Indeed, Republic of Drivers harks back to the great 1950s popular social science explanations of American culture by Riesman, Mills, Whyte, and Potter. Seiler draws particular attention to Riesman's idea of "autonomy" as "the reconciliation of one's own desires with the necessity for the harmonious and moral functioning of a community." (130-132) Autonomous individuals vote, buy things, and drive, accepting this delimited sphere of "freedom" without challenging the liberal-capitalist hegemony.

The primary source research behind Republic of Drivers is impressive for its breadth, depth, and handling. Seiler also draws heavily on the work of contemporary scholars. Yet the points that he introduces from these scholars are subordinated to his larger argument and provide an essential part of the history that he traces. Although the book often employs the specialist vocabulary of literary studies, Republic of Drivers is a rewarding read that leaves...