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John A. Heitmann
Alumni Chair in Humanities
Professor of History
University of Dayton
Dayton, OH 45469
Paper Presentation, Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Annual Meeting, April 6, 2007, Boston
Characterizing 20th century American car culture has remained elusive, despite numerous recent scholarly efforts.1 It is a topic of immense importance, given the role of the automobile in everyday life. Yet it is involves sources, themes, and approaches possessing inordinate breadth and complexity.2 The quest is made even more difficult by inherent nature of the operational definition of culture. Do we employ an anthropological view concerning car culture? How do we incorporate material culture in our analysis, particularly significant in the case of the automobile, with its manufacturing techniques, aesthetics, and design? To what degree do we focus and place an emphasis upon on abstract ideas and language, along with symbols and beliefs?
Few deny statements like “the automobile was the quintessential technology of 20th century America,” or “that no other technology did more to transform 20th century American life than the automobile.” But to go beyond these rather simplistic generalities quickly becomes fraught with difficulties, including concerns about the social construction of technology, the inclusion of necessarily critical material, and rigor. For example, where do we draw the line on how many songs, novels, poems, paintings, photographs, and films to include in our analysis? Can we pull together what amounts to an almost infinite number of seemingly distantly related strands? Certainly, to those (like myself) accustomed to the scrupulous study of manuscripts with the purpose of constructing tight, almost legal documents containing a minimal amount of uncertainty, cultural analysis in the humanities related to the automobile and American life leans towards an uncomfortable subjectivity.
In this essay I wish to explore a facet of the cultural history of the automobile, namely that related to sexuality, gender, and relationships, by resorting to source material from a related body of literary knowledge on the topic, namely poetry. It is the poets who have had something to say about what has been rarely said about human activities in cars. Their responses, particularly in writings after 1980, have resulted in a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and a reconstruction of past events markedly distinct from that by historians employing textual sources.
Literary approaches to the understanding of technology and culture have had several strong advocates. Leo Marx has consistently argued that there is an inherent power to using literature as a probe into the intimate human relations. He stated in a 1988 essay that “The great writer is a sensitive observer, and needless to say, he does not merely project his culture. On the contrary, often he consciously reveals covert elements that less perceptive artists ignore; moreover, he sometimes reveals them precisely by turning stereotypes inside out.”3 Cynthia Golob Dettlebach, a pioneer in the realm of the automobile and culture, concurred with Marx, remarking in her 1976 monograph The Driver’s Seat: The Automobile in American Literature and Popular Culture that “As the most favored – and problematic – offspring of that particularly American union of space, romance, and technology, the automobile occupies a central place in our fantasies as well as our daily lives. It is therefore not surprising that in a wide variety of American art forms, the car is the metaphor or microcosm of our ambivalent, dream/nightmare experiences.”4
It is astonishing to note that so little has been written on either sex or poetry when it comes to the automobile. Perhaps the absence of work on poetry is understandable, but not sex. When I mention to colleagues and friends the topic of sex and the automobile, it is almost universally acknowledged that almost everyone from the baby boomer generation or their parents has had some kind of an experience in a car that brings back a vivid memory. And while the automobile is no longer as popular a place for amorous activities as it was a generation or two ago in the U.S., a recent survey of 4,000 respondents in Great Britain conduced by the car insurer yesinsurance.co.uk and published in the Daily Mail claimed that “…a staggering 68 percent of folk have had nookie in a car. An overwhelming 81 percent of couples have got frisky in the car, but restrained themselves…. [and] More worryingly… one in 10 thrill seekers have actually engaged in sex WHILST DRIVING.”5
This data flies in the face of studies done in the United States during the 1970s in which it was claimed that the back seat had been displaced by the bedroom for many teenagers. According to Beth L. Bailey, during the 20th century courtship moved from parlor to automobile and then to the bedroom, or from private to public and finally back to private spaces.6 It was in the mid-1970s that the subject began to be openly discussed in newspapers, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Car and Driver, and Motor Trend. 7 Yet the only piece of serious historical scholarship devoted to the subject is David Lewis’s essay “Sex and the Automobile: From Rumble Seats to Rockin’ Vans,” first published in 1980.8 One approach to follow up on Lewis’s work might possibly flesh out the topic by examining traffic or police records. A second tack might be to read impressionistic personal accounts, either on the internet or in material like the Penthouse Forum.
I am taking a different angle, however, and that is to look at how female American poets have depicted sexuality and relationships associated with cars and driving, assuming that their sensibilities, and their power to flesh out latent meanings, will elucidate the topic in a fresh way. Without doubt, the automobile as an isolated artifact, quite divorced from those who ride in it, brings with it very different psychological sexual undertones and overtones for men and women, a notion that S. I Hayakawa clearly articulated in 1957.9 And while it is commonly thought that the automobile is associated with masculinity in America, it is female poets writing on sex and the automobile that have proved to write the most revealing material on the subject. Indeed, with the rise of feminism as a mass movement by the late 1970s, they claimed possession of an object often thought masculine in nature, but one that has done more to transform the everyday lives of females than males.
Just as sex and the automobile has been neglected by scholars, so has the topic of poetry and the automobile. In 1980, Laurence Goldstein authored the one scholarly exploration in the area, and it is a valuable introduction to what is a most difficult body of knowledge for a disciplinary outsider to interpret. 10 Goldstein’s analysis was limited in utility, however, both in terms of what poems he chose to use in his essay, and by the fact that his work is now dated. Much poetry involving cars and relationships has been written in the past 27 years. It was precisely after 1980, when according to David Lewis and other observers sexual activity was no longer common in the automobile (although the British insurance survey seems to suggest others!) , that poets began to explicitly write on the topic. Perhaps it was the end of the backseat sex, or perhaps it was the sexual revolution. Or perhaps backseat sex has been replaced by sex in the front reclining seat, now that the recliner has become for the most part standard equipment. While jogging in quiet, residential neighborhoods I occasionally find used condoms on the side of the road, a testimony that sex in cars is not totally dead. Whatever the case, contemporary poetry has by no means neglected love, the automobile, and the road.
To keep things manageable, I have chosen to discuss only female poets, although men also made important contributions to this genre.11 Initially, my decision was based in large part on trying limit the scope of this study, and to manage the length of this presentation. Yet, I was also drawn to women poets because of the remarkable sensitivity that they had for the subject. Serving as source material for this recent wave of poetry, two anthologies proved useful in my work: Kurt Brown’s Drive, They Said: Poems about Americans and Their Cars (1996), and Elinor Nauen’s Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road (1996).12
The female poets that follow are all considered important by the literary community; their work has appeared either in anthologies or published collections. Many of the following have won regional or national awards, and almost all have held teaching positions at colleges or universities. After reviewing a wide range writings, my selection process reflected personal taste and a historical sense of what constitutes the most significant poetry conveying spontaneous emotions related to the automobile, relationships and sexuality. However, the very breadth and complexity of the topic and the vast number of writings precludes any thoughts that it is a definitive study. Indeed, I consider it far more as an exploration.
In order to bring order into what seemed to me as chaos, I have categorized my selections into a number of discrete areas to facilitate analysis and discussion.
Driving, and thinking about you;
When things don’t go quite as planned;
The person as an automobile;
Similar rhythms – making love and making time;
Sex, adventure, and the road.
As an enclosed personal space, made quiet by enhanced technologies during the past twenty years, the automobile not only brings people together for an extended period of time during a road trip, but also enables the driver and passengers to think without distraction. One enters a near hypnotic state when on long drives, and with it the subconscious and conscious flow together. We think of those we love, or hate, and we fantasize about those whom we would like to love. Thus, in “Angel Fire,” Joyce Carol Oates describes the car, the world, the heat, the windshield, and the person sitting next to her:
the sun in a spasm
rocks the car
in this celestial scream
we flow together
better than marriage!
both of us slick with sweat
eyes aching from the glare
everywhere the world shimmers
with a false sunset
at every horizon
we have not spoken for a hundred miles
as if finally we have become a single flesh
and the flesh sighing with heat13
A road trip like that described by Oates can bring two bodies and minds together, but a solitary road trip, as in the case of Linda Gregg in her “Driving to Houston,” allows one to think about ending a relationship.14 It is on such a drive that Gregg thinks hard about her relationship with a married man. Her poem begins “We live alone in our self, close by the suffering….” Later on she has a critical insight: “It is beguiling to realize I am so wrong/ in the same way year after year./ To see how my exact role is./ This time everything is clear.” At the close she remarks: “Driving toward Houston at six-Thirty/ in the evening, crossing the Trinity/ River, the sky dull, the water shining/ with the sun. You are in the North/ at home with the two children and a wife./ Here the pines grow very tall/and have no branches except at the top/where the light touches them./ The injustice of your desire recommends/ its reality, now that I have moved/inside of you, to let you know/ where you are.”15
Oates and Gregg are mature women discussing the intricacies of relationships, and the car is the place where these thoughts flow. However, when we think of sex and automobiles, it is usually about youth. Lynne Knight fleshes out the reality of such a youthful experience in her “There, in My Grandfather’s Old Green Buick.” Knight tells us much about parking: surprisingly, perhaps, male rather than female restraint; distracting thoughts about somehow damaging the car; memories of Catholic religious instruction; exploration and self-control; and a new sense of a more mature self. Knight later stated that the poem “Pretty much encapsulates my sexual experiences as a teenager although it probably makes me sound a little more sexually aware than I actually was. There was a fierce desire, yes, but also lots of blind fumbling.” 16
He was touching me where no one
had touched me before, there,
in my grandfather’s old green Buick
that wouldn’t go in reverse,
so all the while I was worrying
how he’d get the car turned around
and headed back to his school,
there as we were under the dark pines
I worried he’d scrape the paint against the pines
and then he whispered We have to stop Do you know why
we have to stop and I nodded,
and we slipped past the pines with our headlights
still out and when we got there, I slid
behind the wheel and drove down the mountain
knowing something had happened I couldn’t reverse
anymore than I could the Buick, knowing I wanted it,
no matter what the nuns said, I wanted it, I could feel
my body wet and alive as if there had been a birth.17
Knight recently recalled some of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the poem:
When I wrote the poem, I had returned to poetry after a 20-year hiatus. …when I finally got back to where I could tell the truth about my life, I was able to write poetry again. I think of this poem as one of my breakthrough poems – it showed me I could take memory and make of it something new, something that would speak to others.18
Knight’s poetry subtly places us with her and her lover in the car; its power is in its ability to probe the inner recesses of our own memories concerning similar circumstances. One feels the electricity present in the old Buick and its absence in our lives as adults. Sensations of sex are also expressed as electric by Linda Pastan in her “Cable Jumping.”
When our cars touched,
When you lifted the hood of mine
To see the intimate workings underneath,
When we were bound together
By a pulse of pure energy,
When my car like the princess
In the tale woke with a start,
I thought why not ride the rest of the way together?19
Analogies and imagery involving car parts and human parts have been drawn in art and music in the past, whether it be the words in Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” Mel Ramos’ canvas “Kar Kween,”, or the “Dagmars’ on early 1950s Cadillacs.20 Pastan spoke in terms of organs analogous to car parts, and connections no different than the flow of electricity under a hood. The end result of coming together or jump starting is the achievement of synchronicity, of reaching similar voltages.
In a similar fashion achieving synchronicity between the tactile and sensory experiences of driving and the rhythm of a wholesome sexual relationship, imagined or real, was the achievement of California poet Eloise Klein Healy. In her flowing, elegant, and sensitive “This Darknight Speed,” (1979), Healy connected driving with an imagined love. It takes place first in a dance between cars merging from a ramp, and subsequently results in an animal joy, little different than two bodies joined together. In one’s subconscious and conscious mind, despite being alone in a car, one is for a time not alone on the highway.21
Sometimes I feel about love
like driving places at darknight speed
Sometimes I forget
simple words like rapture
for this animal joy,
this sense of being up to speed
and merging from a ramp,
knowning the driver in the mirror
is already adjusting to meet me
And wants it to go smooth,
wants me to have my turn,
not break acceleration
or miss a beat,
wants to meet and make a dance of it
I always believe
I could start pacing with somebody
on a long highway,
playing all the fast songs
and looking at the truck stops
for that one car
and if I could keep it up
god, if I could keep that up
I=d go absolutely right straight crazy to heaven.22
Healy’s exhilaration for the car, the road, and the mysterious other vehicle, is most fanciful and remarkable. The two disconnected hearts, however, are more than likely destined never to meet. The connection and flow is transitory at best. With a turn off an exit ramp, the fantasy and adventure ends.
Adventure can be very real, however. Real and in the car, that is the case in the verse of Louisiana poet Martha McFerren. McFerren begins her “Women in Cars” with the provocative statement “More women have done this than you imagine.” She goes on to recount a long, boring, trip across Texas, a state where it has been said that “Texans think more about wheels than sex,….” Her account dispels that notion however, as she writes:
So you start taking off
your clothes, starting with
your shoes, then your earrings,
then your shirt and bra.
getting out of your
blue jeans isn’t easy.
You have to hoist your rump
and buck forward with your knees
like you’re doing the limbo,
but let’s admit it,
climbing out of jeans in cars
is a native art.23
Certainly riding with Martha had to be an adventure and more. To be young and crazy again! And so to with another female Louisiana poet, Sheryl St. Germain, who takes the adventures to the side of the road in her “Wanting to be in Death Valley.”
What I mean to say I want
our love to be like this place is yes,
bare, lean as your body dressed
only with want, but also
lush and greedy as my legs:
We drove across it today, stopped in 120-degreesun,
got out. I tripped on the dunes, wanting
to embrace them, to become them the way
I sometimes do you, lost
my sandals, burned my feet
raw on the sand. My dress flew up,
my bare ass went down into the sand,
burned that pink-quartz hole you love so much,
and I have had sand in my ass all day,
but what I mean is
we could die out here.24
St. Germain’s erotic poetry is stunning: she takes us to the side of a road only accessible by car, and one where raw nature prevails. There is the possibility of death, a death very different than the outcome of a sexual encounter. St. Germain considered this poem as “unsuccessful,” but in my opinion it is a powerful expression of creative thoughts flowing during a road trip:
I was thinking about the sensuous quality of Death Valley and of the desert in general, and also of the extremity of DV and of deserts, and thinking about desire and how it goes away although you wish that it wouldn’t. I was nearly at the end of a long and mostly satisfying relationship, and I suppose I was thinking that I wanted to be marked by this man in the way that I felt marked by the desert. I was thinking about my own restlessness and desire to move from relationship to relationship and admiring the mesquite, and the other desert plants that set roots down so firmly, so deeply, and wishing I could be like that, somehow knowing that I couldn’t. Thinking about how closing death and sex are linked as well.25
The automobile is perhaps the most sexual object ordinary people deal with. It is a place of refuge for quiet thought; an isolated space for us to be together; a public place for romance beyond the control of others; an object for imagination and imagery; and a vehicle to take us to places on the side of the road that stimulates the innermost recesses of our mind and heart, thereby revealing our souls The women poets discussed in this paper have come to intimate terms with the automobile and American life, and indeed took back the car from its previously considered masculine identity.
1 See Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr, eds., Autopia: Cars and Culture (London: Reaktion), 2002 for an eclectic collection of essays of uneven quality on the topic. See also the excellent review by Rudy Koshar, “On the History of the Automobile in Everyday Life,” Contemporary European History, 10(2001), 143-154. This work, while interesting, has no center, however, and no coherency. Rudi Volti’s Cars & Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004, contains plenty of history of technology and business history, but virtually nothing on music, literature and film, thus avoiding a number of difficult historical areas. See the thought-provoking Wolfang Sachs, For Love of Automobile: Looking Back into the History of Our Desire, trans. By Don Renau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). Dan Miller (ed), Car Cultures (New York: Oxford, 2001). A pioneering study of the British scene is Sean O’Connell, The Car and British Society: Class, Gender and Motoring, 1896-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998). A number of sociologists have been recently working on car culture more from a theoretical set of approaches. For example, see David Inglis, “Auto Couture: Thinking the Car in Post-war France,” Theory, Culture & Society, 21 (204), 197-219; Mimi Sheller, Automotive Emotions: Feeling the Car,” Theory, Culture & Society, 21 (2004), 221-242; Michael bull, Automobility and the Power of Sound,” Theory, Culture & Society, 21(204), 243-250;
2 See Alette Biersack and Lynn Avery Hunt, The New Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). On American cultural history, see David Hackett Fischer, America: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). Perhaps the best cultural history of a thing to date is Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995).
3 Leo Marx, “Literature, Technology, and Covert Culture,” in Marx, The Pilot and the Passenger (1988), p.132.
4 Cynthia Golob Dettelbach, In the Driver’s Seat: The Automobile in American Literature and Popular Culture (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), p.2.
5 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/text/print.html?in_article_id=408674&in_page_id+1770, 12/11/2006.
6 See Beth L.Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Pres, 1988), p.3.
7 See a special issue of Motor Trend, published in February, 1973, on the topic of “Love and the Automobile.” Included were articles by David E. Davis, 50 years of Back Seats;” Carol Troy, “Confessions of a Back-Seat Girl;” Steve Pence, “How to Score with Your Car;” and Allan Cartnel, “Love Vans.” Charles Fox, “Autosex,” Car and Driver, 23 (June 1978), 25.
8 David L. Lewis, “Sex and the Automobile: From Rumble Seats to Rockin’ Vans,” in Lewis and Goldstein, eds., The Automobile and American Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), 123-136.
9 S. I. Hayakawa, “Sexual Fantasy and the 1957 Car,” Etc.: A Review of General Semantics, 14 (1957), 163-8.
10 Laurence Goldstein, “The Automobile and American Poetry,” in Lewis and Goldstein, pp.224-243.
11 Male poets whose work I had initially selected include: Richard Hugo, “Driving Montana,” from his Making Certain it Goes On, The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo (New York: Norton, 1984); Tony Hoagland, “Perpetual Motion,;” from Sweet Ruin (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992); David Clewell, “Traveller’s Advisory,” from his Blessings in Disguise (New York: Viking Penguin, 1991); Reg Saner, “Road Life,’ from (Ohio Review Books, 1984); Philip Booth, “Pickup;” from his Selves (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990); Russell Edson, “The Automobile,” from The Childhood of an Equestrian (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); Stephen Dunn, “Truck Stop: Minnesota,” from his Full of Lust and Good Usage (Pittsburgh, PA : Carnegie-Mellon Press, 1992); and J.D. Reed, “Drive-In,” in Reed, Expressways (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969).
12 Kurt Brown, ed., Drive, They Said: Poems about Americans and Their Cars (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed, 1994); Elinor Nauen, Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996). Lisa M. Steinman’s Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) discusses modernist poets William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens and the place of science and technology in their thought; however, the beyond the general notion of clean lines and the machine, automobile themes are not discussed or developed.
13 Joyce Carol Oates, “Angel Fire,” in Brown, p.50. From Angel Fire (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993).
14 Linda Gregg is a lecturer in creative writing at Princeton University. Her publications and awards include: In The Middle Distance (2006); Too Bright to See and Alma (2002); Things and Flesh (1999), finalist, Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry; Chosen by the Lion (1994); The Sacraments of Desire (1991); Alma (1985); Eight Poems (1982); Too Bright to See (1981). Lannan Literary Fellowship (2003); Sara Teasdale Award (2003), The Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize (1999), National Endowment for the Arts (1993), Pushcart Prize (1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1991-92), Whiting Writer’s Award (1985), Guggenheim Fellowship (1983).
15 Brown, pp. 45-7.
16 Lynne Knight to the author, March 16, 2007.
17 Lynne Knight, “There in My Grandfather’s Old Green Buick,” in Brown, p.56. First published in Poetry East, Spring, 1992. On Lynne Knight’s education, awards, and poetry, see www.lynneknight.com.
18 Lynne Knight to the author, March 16, 2007.
19 Brown, p. 237, from her Light Year (1984). Linda Pastan was born in New York City, graduated from Radcliffe College and received an MA from Brandeis University. Her awards include the Dylan Thomas Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Di Castagnola Award (Poetry Society of America), the Bess Hokin Prize (Poetry Magazine), the Maurice English Award, the Charity Randall Citation of the International Poetry Forum, and the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She was a recipient of a Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumnae Award. PM/AM and Carnival Evening were nominees for the National Book Award and The Imperfect Paradise was a nominee for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995.
20 Johnson used the car-woman metaphor as follows: “I’m gonna hoist your hood mama, I’m going to check your oil. I’m gonna get down deep in this connection, keep on tangling with your wires/ And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plugs gonna give me fire.” See E.L. Widmer, “Crossroads: The automobile, Rock and Roll and Democracy,” in Autopia: Cars and Culture (London, Reaktion, 2002), pp. 65-74.
21 I can think of at least two instances in my own life similar to that expressed by Healy. One was on I-90 between Cleveland and Erie, when I was driving my Mustang convertible and a lady was driving a similar car. We kept pace for miles, only to smile at each other and wave when one of us left the Interstate. A similar top-down episode took place while driving my Porsche 911 in pace with a woman car devotee driving a rare old Mo-Par convertible.
Eloise Klein Healy, “This Darknight Speed,” Elinor Nauen, ed. Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996), p.4.
23 Martha McFerren, “Women in Cars, ” in McFerren, Women in Cars (Kansas City, MO: Helicon Nine, 1992), p.3.
24 Sheryl St. Germain, “Wanting to be in Death Valley,” in Kurt Brown, ed. Drive, They Said: Poems about Americans and Their Cars (Minneapolis, MN, Milkweed, 1994), pp.167-8. A native of New Orleans, Sheryl St. Germain has taught creative writing at The University of Texas at Dallas, The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Knox College and Iowa State University. She currently directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham College where she also teaches poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has received several awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation, and most recently the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay.
Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including TriQuarterly Review, Chatahoochee Review, New Letters, River Styx and Calyx. Her books include Going Home, The Mask of Medusa, Making Bread at Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, and The Journals of Scheherazade. She has also published a book of translations of the Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux, Je Suis Cadien. A book of lyric essays, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, was published in 2003 by The University of Utah Press.
25 Communication with this author, March 22, 2007.
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