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A Back-to-School Syllabus for Complete Streets Advocates

10:00 AM PDT on August 31, 2011

While Hollywood’s screenwriters, FX wizards, and product placers have contributed mightily to the idea of the automobile as the vehicle of freedom, joy, and rebellion, our literary lions have often taken a more gimlet-eyed view of car culture.

Now, as summer ends, high school and college students across the country will put the car chases and road trips of film on pause to tackle a semester’s assigned reading. Many are picking up these classics, which were remarkably prescient about the automobile’s impact on society.

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Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel anticipated a nation anaesthetized by mindless media and high technology. When they meet on the rarely used sidewalk, free-spirited Clarisse explains to protagonist Guy Montag what is lost in car culture’s velocity:

“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly,” she said. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur! That’s a rose garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed him for two days.”

For Bradbury, being a pedestrian connects us to nature and to each other; the government in his cautionary tale has made it a crime because it gives citizens too much “time for crazy thoughts.”

Brave New World: Aldous Huxley feared the potential for conformity and social control presented by mass production and mass consumption, so in the dystopian World State of his 1932 novel, the people worship Henry Ford: “My Ford!” has replaced “My Lord!” and the year is 632 AF (After Ford).

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Indeed, as James Flink pointed out in The Automobile Age, it was the sale of cars on credit, introduced in the 1920s, that accustomed us to the idea of buying things before we have the money to do so, setting the stage for today’s consumer culture. When Huxley’s World State encourages certain consumer behaviors simply to keep industry rolling, it’s hard not to draw parallels to our government subsidizing roads and sprawl, auto bailouts, and incentive programs such as Cash for Clunkers.

A Death in the Family: When James Agee’s novel, inspired by his father’s death in a crash, debuted in 1955, roughly a million Americans had already been killed by cars. Since then, another 2.5 million have died this way, but few works have better captured the slashing pain of sudden loss and anxious search for explanations (Was the driver drunk? Was death quick and painless? Was it God’s will?) that families undergo when a loved one is killed on the road.

Agee also understood the vulnerability of the human body to the destructive power of the automobile; his Jay Follett is killed the instant he hits the steering wheel because he hits it just so. The hours we now spend driving and decades of safety improvements can cause forgetfulness, even denial, about the danger vehicles still pose.

The Great Gatsby: In the automobile’s early days, F. Scott Fitzgerald saw with amazing clarity how it symbolized the myths and realities of the American Dream. New Money mogul Jay Gatsby attempts to woo his beloved Daisy and establish his bona fides in the upper crust with his extravagant mansion and parties—and his “gorgeous”, “rich”, “bright” car. He fails, though, to harness his chariot to the sun, winning neither Daisy’s love nor high society’s acceptance. Similarly, each year, millions of Americans buy a luxurious vehicle with the expensive hope that its luster will rub off on their reputations.

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The car is more than just one of many material objects Gatsby uses to demonstrate his net worth and self-worth—it becomes the central object in the novel when Daisy commits the hit-and-run that is his downfall. Caught in the wreckage are victims Myrtle and George Wilson:

…Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust… When they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.

Fitzgerald’s editor questioned the need to describe Myrtle’s death so violently, but he defended it as essential and real. There is realism, too, in his portrayal of her husband George, the hapless mechanic who begs wealthy Tom Buchanan to sell him his used car. George mistakenly sees the automobile as the way up and out rather than as the financial albatross it often becomes for struggling families. When his wife is run down, the two become fictional representatives of America’s real life poor, disproportionately vulnerable to death by walking.

"Fiction”, wrote Stephen King, “is the truth inside the lie". These four truth-tellers are just a handful of those who’ve pointed out car culture’s dark undercarriage. Are there others you would add to a syllabus for “Complete Streets Lit”?

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, is co-author of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).

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