During this quarter in Auto-mobility: the Car in American Literature and Culture, we are revisiting our work from “On the Road,” last spring's Revs-sponsored literature course. Continuing our research, we are writing a book, tentatively titled Auto-mobility: the Car in American Literature and Culture. In our most recent meeting we discussed Gertrude Stein's Ford, Jay Gatsby's hand-built Rolls Royce, women and driving, driving instruction, licensing, suburbs, taxis in New York and Paris, and the growth of the oil industry in relation to the car's increasing popularity.

Students in our Auto-Mobility class gathering at the Automotive Innovation Facility.

Last Spring’s course covered ten literary works from World War I to the beginning of the twenty-first century. In this literature, the car brings about reversals of fortune for men and women. During the course, we wanted to understand the historical and cultural context of the stories we were reading better, but also learn more about the car's increasing prevalence and related car industries, vocations, practices, trends, and fashions. The book is devoted to showing not only how the car shapes the destinies of the men and women in American literature, but also defines a set of themes and terms and things that the car generated in twentieth Century America.

The example passages below, from “The War,” a chapter in Gertrude Stein's fictional biography 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,' show us that even in the early days of its existence -- Stein's novel was written in 1933 -- the automobile was both a thread and a spindle:

“One day we were walking down the rue des Pyramides and there was a ford car being backed up the street by an American girl and on the car it said American Fund for the French Wounded. There said I, that is what we are going to do. At least, said I to Gertrude Stein, you will drive the car and I will do the rest. We went over and talked to the American girl and then interviewed Mrs. Lathrop, the head of the organization. She was enthusiastic. She was always enthusiastic and she said, get a car. But where, we asked. From America, she said, and Gertrude Stein did, she asked her cousin and in a few months the ford car came. “

“It was William Cook too who later on taught Gertrude Stein how to drive a car by teaching her on one of the old battle of the Marne taxis. Cook being hard up had become a taxi driver in Paris, that was in sixteen and Gertrude Stein was to drive a car for the American Fund for French Wounded. So on dark nights they went out beyond the fortifications and the two of them sitting solemnly on the driving seat of one of those old two-cylinder before-the-war Renault taxis, William Cook taught Gertrude Stein how to drive.”

“Then there was the question of gasoline…”

End