The Automobile as American Culture
Course Syllabus
Yale University Seminar

In this seminar we will approach the automobile as both material object and cultural form.  Utilizing the car as a vehicle through which to explore movement between geographical territories and among global cultures, we will examine the role of the automobile in the transformation of the built environment, in the diffusion of social networks, and in the development of aesthetic ideals in the twentieth century.

The invention and development of the automobile has revolutionized the geographic, economic, demographic, and cultural landscape of America.  The central paradigm of movement allows us to investigate both the local and the transnational forms and significance of this revolution.  In this course we probe the linkages between spatial, economic, and social mobility that have characterized American notions of progress and success.  In the worldwide automobile revolution, the United States is, and remains, the foremost automobile culture.  Engaging themes of consumption and mobility (two of the auto’s central idioms), we will attempt to locate the place of the automobile in a broader analysis of American culture and its global circulation.  In addition, both consumption and mobility direct our attention towards questions of race, gender, class and geography – the primary areas of inquiry we will be exploring in this course.

This seminar positions the auto as both a local and a transnational phenomenon; readings are both thoroughly interdisciplinary, and thoroughly international.  Architecture, geography, urban planning, social history, labor history, industrial design, economics, literature, sociology – these represent the variety of disciplinary areas with which the auto intersects and intervenes in the twentieth century.  Readings will be arranged thematically.  Throughout the course, we will study several models of cultural analysis to provide us with critical frameworks for our examination of the role of the automobile in the definition and redefinition of the modern world.

Course Requirements:
Regular attendance and active class participation are mandatory.  All students will be expected to generate two thoughtful discussion questions and distribute them to the entire class via e-mail prior to our weekly meetings.  These questions will help guide the class discussion.  In Week Six students will submit a 3-4 page analytical paper that expands upon seminal themes and issues explored in the first six weeks of the class.  Students are encouraged to meet with the instructor early on in the term to discuss ideas for their final paper topics (15 pp.), and are required to submit a written proposal in class four weeks before the paper is due.

There is a substantial amount of reading in this class.  We are covering a lot of historical and theoretical terrain here.  Students will be able to post their own questions or issues regarding the weekly reading on our course server; this will facilitate an ongoing dialogue among students and instructor.

You will be offered many different angles and models of cultural analysis in this seminar, using the automobile as a point of entry into larger social questions and themes.  In class discussion we will weigh the merits of the argument presented in that particular set of readings, as well as assess the strengths and weaknesses of its model of cultural inquiry and analysis.  In your papers and in your presentations you are encouraged to think through these interpretive models in greater detail, as well as to develop your own ways of critically thinking through these issues.

There are a number of directions in which students might approach the final paper.  You will be able to pursue in greater detail one of the thematic units we have explored in the course, or you may generate your own area of inquiry.  In short, depending on your interest, there is a wide range of potential topics for you to consider – e.g. one might want to look at the role of professional drag racing in American culture; or explore the impact of new technologies, trends, and scientific advances on the automobile industry.  Using the models of cultural analysis that we have become familiar with over the course of the semester, students will critically engage the issues undertaken in their paper.  The paper will be 20-25 pages in length.

Required Texts:
E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Chester Himes, If he Hollers Let him Go
Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took over America, and How we can Take it Back
August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW
Daniel Miller, ed., Car Cultures
Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women Drivers and the Coming of the Motor Age
Martin Wachs and Margaret Crawford, eds., The Car and the City: the Automobile, the Built Environment, and Daily Urban Life

Please note: All readings marked by an asterisk will be in your course packet available at Tyco’s.

Week One:

    • General overview of course and course requirements
    • What is cultural analysis?
    • Brief social and technological history of automobile
    • Introduction of various thematic units
    • Assignment of class presentations

Week Two:
Portable Privacy: the Evolution of the Mobile Leisured Class
*“Pleasures for the Wealthy (1890-1914)” in Wolfgang Sachs, For Love of the Automobile: Looking Back at the History of Our Desires
*Edith Wharton, A Motor-Flight through France, selections
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
James J. Flink, “The Ultimate Status Symbol: the Custom Coachbuilt Car in the Interwar Period,” in The Car and the City: the Automobile, the Built Environment, and Daily Urban Life
*Automobile Advertisements

Week Three:
The Perils of Progress: The “Death Car” and its Victims
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, continued
Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age: Chapter 8
*William Plowden, The Motor Car & Politics: 1896-1970, Part II (1920s-1930s)
*Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed, selected chapters

Week Four:
The Automobile and the City:

*Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in D. Frisby and M. Featherstone, Simmel on Culture
*“Desires” Section in Wolfgang Sachs, For Love of the Automobile: Looking Back at the History of Our Desires
Scott Bottles, Mass Politics and the Adoption of the Automobile in Los Angeles,” in The Car and the City: the Automobile, the Built Environment, and Daily Urban Life
Chapter 7, “Model T, Model City,” in Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile took over America, and how we can Take it Back
*“The Death of the Street: the Automobile and Houston,” in Jan Jennings, ed., Roadside America: The Automobile in Design and Culture

Week Five:
Driving Towards Equality: The Gender(ed) Dynamics of the Automobile

Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Ch. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7
*“A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It”: The First Coast-to-Coast Auto Trips by Women, 1899-1916.  Ch. 2-4: Alice Ramsey, Blanche Stuart Scott, and Anita King
Martin Wachs, “Men, Women, and Urban Travel: the Persistence of Separate Spheres,” in The Car and the City
*Ruth Milkman, “Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Management’s Postwar Purge of Women Automobile Workers,” in Nelson Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer, ed., On the line: Essays in the History of Auto Work

Week Six:
Race-ing the Automobile

**Note: Students will choose between two novels:
E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime
Chester Himes, If he Hollers Let him Go
Paul Gilroy, “Driving While Black,” in Car Cultures

Midterm Analytical Paper Due

Week Seven:
Auto-bodies: Engineers, Workers, Assembly Lines, and Mass Production

*Nelson Lichtenstein, Introduction: the American Automobile Industry and its Workers”, in On the Line
*Clarence Hooker, Life in the Shadows of the Crystal Palace, 1910-1927: Ford Workers in the Model T Era.  Chapters 6 & 7
*Stephen Tolliday and Jonathan Zeitlin, “Shop Floor Bargaining, Contract Unionism, and Job Control: an Anglo-American Comparison,” in On the Line
August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW.  Chapters 1-3
Gerald T. Bloomfield, “Coils of the Commercial Serpent: a Geography of the Ford Branch Distribution System, 1904-33,” in Roadside America

Week Eight:
The Machine Aesthetic: Design and Industry in the Automobile Age

*Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America, selected chapters
*Jan Jennings, “Housing the Automobile” in Roadside America
Rebecca Morales, “Place and Auto Manufacture in the Post-Fordist Era,” and Drummond Buckley, “A Garage in the House” in The Car and City
*“Fordism”, in James J. Flink, The Automobile Age
*Selected Automobile Advertisements

Week Nine:
The Demographic Shifts of Automobility

*Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: the Suburbanization of the United States, selected chapters
*“Diffusion” and “On the Road,” in James J, Flick, The Automobile Age
Chapter 2: “Geography of Inequity,” in Asphalt Nation
*Michael L. Berger, “The Motorization of Library and Related Services in Rural America, 1912-28,” in Roadside America

Final Paper Prospectus Due

Week Ten:
“When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler!”: Unpacking the Transnational Flows of the American automobile

*A. Appadurai, Introduction, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective
Tom O’Dell, “Raggare and the Panic of Mobility: Modernity and Everyday Life in Sweden,” in Daniel Miller, ed., Car Cultures
Pauline Garvey, “Driving, Drinking, and Daring in Norway,” in Car Cultures
*“Ford and the Fuhrer: New Documents Reveal Close Ties between Dearborn and the Nazis,” The Nation 270: 3 (11-18)

Week Eleven:
Roadside America: Consuming the Post-modern Landscape

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
*2 articles TBA on the rise of motels and strip malls
*Folke T. Kihlsted, “A Bridge Between Engineering and Architecture,” in Roadside America
Alan Hess, “Styling the Strip: Car and Roadside Design in the 1950s,” in The Car and the City

Final Paper Bibliographies Due

Week Twelve:
The Political Economy of the Automobile: Oil, Oil, and more Oil

*Lester Brown, Running on Empty: The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World, pp. 1-50; 80-90.
*Jim Motavalli, Forward Drive: The Race to Build “Clean” Cars for the Future, Chapters 1-3
Chapter 4, “Road to Environmental Ruin,” in Asphalt Nation
*Article TBA: Wars for Oil

Week Thirteen:
The Future of Space: Road Maps and Social Formations

Barton Myers with John Dale, “Designing in Car-Oriented Cities: an Argument for Episodic Urban Congestion,” in The Car and the City
Chapter 16: “The Centering of America,” in Asphalt Nation

Conclusions and Discussion of Student Papers

Final Papers Due

© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS