Gross, Andrew S. (2003):
"California Automobile Tourism and Consumer Culture in US Literature." Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main. 1/2003: 1-27.
Working Paper

This paper studies one of the earliest forms of modern consumer culture—the road book—in relation to one of the early utopias of modern consumption—California. Criticism has traditionally treated the road book as an extension of a loosely defined transcendentalist project, where drivers take to the open road to “discover” themselves in nature. The determinate context, however, is corporate rather than literary-historical. The earliest road books were advertisements. Their itineraries linked up with other spatial technologies (e.g. the conveyor belts in automobile plants and modern highways), transforming space into a vast production and distribution network. Production and distribution intersected in California, the state with the most automobiles per capita and the destination of most early road trips.

The first section of the paper considers the journey to California from the perspective of Emily Post, who would later become a famous writer on etiquette. Post’s book is the narrative equivalent to the standardized roadside architecture, converting local difference into a tourist attraction, and local (especially ethnic) identity into a commodity. The next section considers the effects of commercial homogenization on gender, focusing on the moment when some women, taking the steering wheel, assumed agency as consumers. The primary texts here are some of the early novels of Sinclair Lewis, along with examples of sociology and advertising copy from the 1920s and 1930s. The final section analyzes the WPA Guidebook to California as a federal attempt to re-map corporate space—the space of tourist attractions and consumers—according to a progressive ideal. All three sections treat the tour form as a spatial and literary structure—a privileged topos, at once geographical and symbolic, where complex relations between identity and place are negotiated in the form of a journey.