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Motorists, Engineer-Administrators, and Muddy-Boots Contractors: New Perspectives on the American Highway Revolution

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 36, Number 4, December 2008
pp. 586-593 | 10.1353/rah.0.0055

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After ignoring highways through most of the nineteenth century, federal officials suddenly embraced road construction in the early twentieth century as a governmental responsibility of national significance. With growing fervor, they allocated tremendous sums to construct an elaborate highway network that has become a defining feature of the American landscape. Scholars interested in this American zeal for road construction have thus focused a great deal of attention on the creation and administration of federal highway policy. It is somewhat remarkable, then, that in the space of little more than a month three new books should appear that approach this subject from three very different directions. Each of these new volumes adopts the perspective of an important but under-studied player in the remarkable flowering of the highway industry during the first half of the twentieth century, and each attempts to parley that perspective into fresh insights into the significance of the American highway revolution.

John A. Jakle, a geographer, and Keith A. Sculle, a historian, are the co-authors of five previous books on America's automobile-oriented landscape.1 In all of these important collaborations, they have relied on a straightforward methodology that is particularly well-suited to their subjects: taking a prominent physical feature of the American roadside—such gas stations, motels, or parking lots—and analyzing the historical forces that have produced it in its numerous variations. In their newest book, Motoring, they adopt a different tactic, announcing their intention to "give motorists their full due" by focusing on the experience of driving itself, which they believe has melded motorists, automobiles, and roads into an interconnected whole (p. 1). Studying the "human/machine response to the road," they argue, can generate "important insight into American culture" (p. 2). This promising idea breaks markedly from their usual emphasis on prominent physical features of the roadside, suggesting that the experience of motorists themselves can teach us new and important lessons about why the American landscape has become so thoroughly oriented around automobiles.

Unfortunately, and despite interesting research and a lively narrative, the authors never deliver on this provocative idea. Part of the problem is that rather than developing a new methodology suited to uncovering the experiences of motorists, they stick steadfastly with their established methods. Regrettably, these are ill suited to the new task, and as a result their narrative routinely veers away from the perspective of the motorist and toward what is happening along the side of the road. This is so much the case that the bulk of the book is not about the experience of motoring at all, but is instead about the overlapping histories of various roadside buildings and motoring-related artifacts. The book's opening chapter, for example, begins with the observation that "America was evolving as an auto-oriented world, with the motorist at the center," but then immediately abandons motorists for discussions of the early technical evolution of motor-vehicle designs, the diffusion of automobile ownership, the popularity of auto racing, the manufacturing breakthroughs of Ford and General Motors, and the growing significance of automotive styling (p. 7). The subject of motoring as an experience surfaces briefly in short sections on women motorists, touring, and the horrendous safety record of early automobiles, but these sections are fleeting and break little new ground.

In other places, the idea of motoring-as-experience is reduced from an exciting new analytical tool to little more than a framing device. In the chapter "Detour Ahead: Rebuilding America's Roads," for example, the introduction discusses the intense frustration experienced by drivers who, during what Bruce Seely has labeled the "golden age" of road construction in the 1920s and 1930s, often found their recreational excursions marred by construction-and repair-related delays.2 This might well have prompted motorists to revile highway workers, the authors note, yet there is evidence that many drivers saw repair workers "as popular heroes, the great expediters of the motor era" (p. 56). After presenting readers with this interesting and suggestive contradiction, however, the authors drop motorists entirely from the ensuing discussion, which presents a detailed history of various road pavements and construction methods (including the use of earth, gravel, macadam, asphalt, and...

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