- The Automobile and American Life
Unquestionably, the automobile was one of the most significant technologies in twentieth-century American life. Yet because the car has so thoroughly shaped the country's economy, environment, and culture, histories of the automobile tend to be partial, focusing, perhaps necessarily, on only one sphere of the technology's incredible influence. While great monographs abound, the field of automobile history has been lacking a useful synthesis that highlights the auto's importance to all aspects of American life. With The Automobile and American Life, John Heitmann attempts to fill this void, asking readers "to think deeply about the car and American culture, as well as the transformative power of technology upon society and everyday life" (p. 1). Considering the enormity of this task, Heitmann succeeds in many ways. This is an immensely useful work, especially for those of us who want an entertaining and provocative text for our courses.
Heitmann sets out to update James J. Flink's 1988 The Automobile Age by broadening the focus to include more social and cultural history and to bring the history of the automobile into the present. The strength of the work is Heitmann's ability to weave together the vast historiography on the automobile and automobility into a single accessible text. The book is laid out in readily digestible sections with short chapters covering the period from the car's infancy in the late nineteenth century to the turn of the twenty-first century, with the narrative stopping right before the current financial crisis. The topics covered include technological development, the labor movement, industrial growth, road and highway construction, marketing and advertising, design and styling, and individual models, to name just a few. And within each chapter Heitmann places the automobile in its appropriate cultural context, exploring its impact on a variety of topics ranging from movies to music to poetry. He never loses sight of the fact that the automobile's story is part of the larger story of American history. While many traditional topics are covered in the book, some of the more interesting discussions include a look at joy riders and car theft, religious views of the automobile, and the auto in action thrillers.
But the very strength of this work is also its biggest weakness. Any attempt to develop a synthesis is necessarily going to have shortcomings, and some topics do not get the kind of nuanced analysis that a monograph would provide. For example, in the first chapter, "Beginnings: From a Mechanical Curiosity to a Plaything for the Well-to-Do,"Heitmann offers a list of songs written about the automobile, not elaborating much beyond the list itself. But what this list does do is provide teachers with a great opportunity to expand on the text in class and provide students with excellent [End Page 517] topics for research. While there are other limitations similar to this one, in no way do they detract from the larger importance and usefulness of Heitmann's work. Overall, the failings are relatively minor considering the enormity of his undertaking.
Heitmann succeeds in his mission of getting readers to think about the importance of the automobile in all aspects of American life. This work is a tremendous resource for students and teachers alike and will be a valuable asset to any teacher who hopes to bring the automobile and automobility into the classroom. The Automobile and American Life is both instructive and enjoyable.
Dr. Gangloff, an assistant professor in the history department at Mississippi State University, is writing a book on the history of automobile safety.