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  • One Nation Behind the WheelAutomobility in U.S. Culture
  • Kari Hensley (bio)
Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. By Cotten Seiler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 240 pages. $52 (cloth). $19 (paper).

When President Obama referred to the U.S. auto industry as the very "emblem of the American spirit," he may have been half right.1 Americans certainly love cars; they just don't love American cars. Recent sales numbers for the "Big Three" automakers have shown anything but U.S. consumer loyalty to Detroit. Or perhaps Americans love the idea of driving—its promises of freedom, speed, adventure, and independence. It is this love affair and the mythical role of the automobile in the American imagination that is the topic of Cotten Seiler's recent book Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. But his study is not simply a romance, and it is not merely a story about cars. Seiler, an associate professor of American studies at Dickinson College, takes the role of automobility in the United States as his object of analysis. This term dates back to at least the first years of the twentieth century and refers not simply to the act of driving, but to perceptions shaped by it, attitudes toward it, and knowledge of it, as well as "a broader array of signs, institutions, objects, practices, and feelings" (5). As Seiler argues, automobility is to driving what sexuality is to sex.

Automobility is a theme increasingly found in a rich array of scholarly texts, as attested by Robert Buerglener's December 2008 American Quarterly review of five books on the theme of transportation.2 There Buerglener asks, "Just what accounts for a societal obsession with cars and transportation, anyway?"3 Although those five texts were published too late to be referenced in Republic of Drivers, Seiler continues the dialogue on transportation and offers some new and compelling responses to Buerglener's question. In his review, Buerglener discusses the many ways in which the six authors use the lens of automobility (or transportation more broadly) to explore issues as varied as "individual identity, public policy, labor and business history, even the connections [End Page 173] between humans and the nonhuman world."4 Even more than these other books, Republic of Drivers shows that the ubiquity of the automobile in the United States has to do with more than mere transportation.

Touching on many of the same themes, such as the role of social power, corporate influence, technology, national identity, and consumerism in the United States, Seiler contributes a valuable and distinct addition to this growing subfield of study. Like David Blanke, who writes that "by 1940, driving was an inescapable ingredient of modern citizenship," he is attuned to the symbolic role of driving in the United States.5 But Seiler not only dates this codification a decade earlier; he develops these ideas further, taking the subjectivity of the driver-citizen as the main focus and offering an in-depth investigation into how the driver came to represent the dominant ideals of American citizenship. The book spans the years from 1895 to 1961, a period of ascendancy for the United States as a world power and a time when, according to Seiler, "automobility emerged as a shaper of public policy and the landscape, a prescriptive metaphor for social and economic relations, and a forge of citizens" (3). In approaching these issues, he problematizes many cultural assumptions about the American attachment to the automobile.

While Buerglener applauded David Blanke and Tom McCarthy on many points, he critiqued both authors for attributing the American love affair with the automobile to consumers' irrational drives (seen to stand outside intellectual analysis). Seiler's book, a deep and nuanced account of this complex relationship between drivers and autos, offers an elaboration of and a counterpoint to these earlier conversations. For him, the popularity of the automobile during this period arose as a response to the exigencies of the modern era—especially those related to labor, consumption, race, gender, and what it meant to be an "authentic" individual. In a sense, his text amounts to a genealogy of the notion of individualism...


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pp. 173-180
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