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  • On the Road:Reevaluating an American Cultural Ideal
  • Zachary Tavlin (bio)

Within American literary studies, the long-rambling scholarly conversation about the road has reached a dead end. Perhaps the problem extends beyond self-professed Americanists, infecting middlebrow culture's nostalgic attachment to Kerouac, Springsteen, or Dennis Hopper, the prophets whose ultimate words on the American road absolve us of any need to theorize beyond their countercultural moment. But drivers know that unexpected dead ends and cul-de-sacs need not prevent one from continuing on one's way. One can back up and turn around, provided one accounts for navigational error. The rich historical archive of American road literature is not closed, but generating fresh insights about it requires reckoning with our critical narratives' blind spots. This enterprise's value extends beyond questions of taste and interest in travelogue and the American road trip. Indeed, by renewing critical attention to writing directly connected to the American road's material development, we can better understand how spatial organization and orientation ground cultural epistemes.

I aim here to provide an alternative to contemporary theories of the public sphere—particularly that of Jürgen Habermas—that privilege print over the spatial technologies [End Page 1] that originally enabled the print revolution. That is, while the American road certainly takes on discursive dimensions, dominant rhetorics of publicity and accessibility—which appeared in American politics, literature, and letters well before any grand theory of the liberal public sphere—are significantly misleading. While the road's and print culture's developments were inextricably associated with the historical emergence of American public spheres (in the plural), they do not tend toward the universal, or toward a spatial regime containing liberatory or even roughly egalitarian access points.

The American road is not a cultural monolith, though it is hard to see its local epistemic effects through the historical shroud of obscuring romanticisms. Sometimes the best way to jump-start a critical vehicle is to identify with those better-positioned to see the interstate. To that end, I will bookend my microarchive with two influential outsider accounts of the American road: Alexis de Tocqueville's experience with nineteenth-century American travel and Jean Baudrillard's late-career experience as a postmodern tourist. Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835–40) and Baudrillard's America (1986) pit early republic vs. late-capitalist America, East vs. West, and carriage vs. automobile. While Tocqueville marvels at the road as a public region or a locus for discursive structures, Baudrillard argues that the development of transport speed flattens the world's depth, a process that contributes to public space's privatization.

Between Tocqueville's and Baudrillard's visits, of course, lies a wide temporal expanse of continental growth, settlement, and mapping procedures often representative of national identity and in practical and political service to Manifest Destiny. Tocqueville's early account often missed (or obscured) material and ideological structures that framed nineteenth-century transportation networks; such structures included the communication systems that evolved with roadway development and the human bodies whose access [End Page 2] to roads cultural and legal strictures regulated. Even Walt Whitman's celebrated ideal of the open road intervenes as an irreducibly ideological and historically incomplete romantic ideal disrupted by colonialism, racism, and capital. By framing several American literary and cultural materials between Tocqueville's outsider political science and Baudrillard's outsider tourism, I will show how transportation's dominant modes frustrated radical democratic desires.1

These French tourists provide less idealized accounts than many popular American road texts. By juxtaposing their travelogues—following Baudrillard's evocation of his great predecessor—we can obtain a broad sense of the American road's concrete, historical development alongside corresponding continental cartographies as they appear to those (perhaps) not intimately caught up in the maw of American spiritual allegory.2 Despite major differences in their approaches and conclusions, shaped largely by over a century's distance, Baudrillard follows Tocqueville in seeing the road as a discursive space, a vehicle for the public sphere's development or breakdown.

In this essay's first section, I outline the Habermasian presuppositions behind dominant theories of the liberal public sphere, which depend upon universalizing abstractions of rational...


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