|Long before there were interstate highways, asphalt, bumper stickers, automatic transmissions, zero-percent financing or radar detectors, Walt Whitman, in his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, testified to the liberation and exhilaration he found on the open road:
From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and
Going where I list, my own master, total and
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of
the holds that would hold me ...
For Whitman, the road’s destination was less important than its ability to generate feelings of expansiveness, self-determination and possibility. Some 100 years after the appearance of Leaves of Grass, another great enthusiast of the American road, Chuck Berry, recorded “No Particular Place to Go,” a song that put a V-8 under the hood of Whitman’s poem. Singing the praises of the automobile age, Berry made it clear that “cruisin’ and playin’ the radio” out on a country road was a singularly modern and American pleasure—and all the better if you had your baby by your side. For Berry and other (largely male) road aficionados of the 1950s, such as On the Road novelist Jack Kerouac, the highway promised a rush of excitement, a means of escape and ever-new experiences.
Today we find ourselves living in the world of these road lovers’ dreams. In our nation, gridded with streets, roads and highways, automobility reigns supreme—for better and worse. My research considers how “automobility”—the policies and practices of driving—figured in Cold-War America. I argue that the individual mobility of the driver symbolized the ideological gulf separating the United States from its communist antagonists. It was against this backdrop that the construction of the interstate-highway system, authorized by President Eisenhower and Congress in 1956, emerged as a political and cultural imperative.
Carlisle, Pa., is a good vantage point from which to contemplate the past, present and future importance of the car in the United States. Situated at the intersection of two major interstate highways, the Pennsylvania Turnpike (which predates the 1956 system) and I-81, Carlisle is a central node in the increasingly complex and high-tech network of national trucking. Each year since 1974, Carlisle has hosted an ever-expanding series of car shows that now draw more than a half-million visitors each year from all over the world. It’s not unusual during the warmer months to see caravans of gleaming vintage Corvettes or regal Rolls-Royces plying the interstates in and out of town. The sight of these drivers, looking just so cool, piloting their glamorous automotive antiques down the highway is enough to make one slump behind the wheel of his or her more practical Honda or Volkswagen. (Indeed, the car has long been a way to express one’s personality, socioeconomic class and even, as recent studies suggest, political leanings.)
From this central Pennsylvania highway hub it is easy to acknowledge that the interstate-highway system was the most monumental public works project in human history. Under the provisions of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, more than 42,500 miles of the continental U.S. were to be paved by the estimated 1971 date of completion, with a cost of about $100 billion. First approved as a public works and defense priority in 1944, the highways had been forcefully promoted by a constellation of interests known as the “Highway Lobby” (or, more colloquially, the “Road Gang”).
Comprised of the oil, cement, rubber, automobile, steel, insurance, trucking, chemical and construction industries, the Road Gang, along with powerful consumer and labor groups such as the American Automobile Association and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, stressed the economic and social benefit to be reaped by building and maintaining a seamless transcontinental system of high-speed roads. United States military leaders, impressed by the efficacy of the German Autobahnen, envisioned a domestic network of superhighways for the rapid movement of troops and materiel and for the evacuation of cities in the event of an atomic attack. The national-defense role of the highways was emphasized as a way of getting the bill through Congress. (And no, contrary to the myth, every fifth mile of a given interstate is not straight to provide emergency landing of bombers, as a drive through West Virginia will confirm.)
Today’s interstate highways are spaces of American self-realization and vectors of commerce, much like the great rivers of the continent that enabled the flow of goods, people, ideas, music (not to mention crime and disease) in the 19th century. And, like rivers and the railroad, highways hold the key to a community’s financial well-being. It comes as little surprise that the fastest-growing areas in the United States enjoy advantageous positions at the junction of two or more highways. But with this growth come increasingly congested and dangerous highways.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the open road celebrated by Whitman, Berry and others grows ever more rare, with traffic density increasing each year and little being done to address it. Adding road capacity, despite the conventional wisdom, does little to alleviate congestion, and the prevailing political winds blow strongly against most public-transportation initiatives. Couple this problem with the environmental effects and financial drain of the nation’s ravenous fossil-fuel consumption, and it becomes clear that the societal costs of our obsession with motion have been very steep indeed.
Walt Whitman understood the reciprocal relationship between roads and people—we construct them; and they, in conducting us, construct us too. He wrote,
O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you not say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and
undenied, adhere to me?
The highway says all of these things, and we have found its voice compelling. •
Assistant Professor of American Studies Cotten Seiler is a cultural historian of the 20th-century United States who has written frequently about automobility, the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation.