Passing on Foot

Slate's Culture Blog
June 11 2009 9:25 AM

Passing on Foot

"The true democracy ... where all journey down the open road. Where a soul is known at once in its going. Not by its clothes or appearance. Not by its family name. Not even by its reputation. Not by works at all. The soul passing unenhanced, passing on foot, and being no more than itself."  
—D.H. Lawrence on Walt Whitman

On this week’s Culture Gabfest we talked about the death of GM. There are two competing narratives when it comes to America’s supposed romance with the car. The first picks up on the longing that Lawrence, the class-bound Englishman, experiences when he thinks of Whitman, the barbaric yawper on the open road, carrying with him nothing more than his own soul, unenhanced. (A similar note is sounded here , in Scotsman Andrew O’Hagan’s impossibly smart elegy to the car: "If you read the novels of Joan Didion, you will see there can come a time in anybody’s life, women’s as much as men’s, when they climb into their car and feel that they are driving away from an entire kingdom of dependency.") The first narrative is: We are in our absolute essence a car culture, and we have the icons to prove it: Whitman avant la lettre , Kerouac, Springsteen. Cars express our mobility, our individuality, our optimism, our unembarrassed embrace of the large and the far; once, they expressed our economic dominance.

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Alongside this runs another, darker narrative. The Eisenhower highway bill irreparably scarred the countryside and made us dependent on oil; Robert Moses destroyed our cities and turned us into a nation of road enraged, isolated suburbanites, enslaved to the epic commute.  As our bogus freedom expanded, our public spaces degraded. This narrative, too, has its icons: Welles' movie The Magnificent Ambersons  or The Power Broker , Caro’s biography of Moses. I would put exactly between myths No. 1 and No. 2 the magnificent Frank Bascombe books by Richard Ford .

So which is it? My wife took the kids to the in-laws two years ago, and no sooner had the door swung shut, I jumped in the car. I drove down to the Maryland shore, listening to a Mets game on the radio, then The Queen Is Dead and Guided by Voices, as I rocketed south to Charlottesville, Va., to gawp at waitresses and wander through Mr. Jefferson’s serpentine walls. The campus was deserted; the buildings were being locked up at the end of the day. I ran into an old English professor I never expected to see again, himself a deep reader of Whitman. I’d love to say there is some organic connection between driving along at dusk, listening to baseball— if not exactly a soul unenhanced, a haggard new father untethered from the world of dependency— and the magic hour encounter with Mark. And yet my memory of speaking as a somewhat integrated adult with someone who had always discomposed me as an adolescent, is inseparable from the fact that we had passed each other on foot .   

We should at least hesitate before we claim Whitman for narrative No. 1; he may even belong more comfortably in narrative No. 2. Maybe the true romance has always been with the American road, not the American car, whatever the advertisers say. It preceded the automobile, and it will, god willing, survive it.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.