The Automobile and American Life
Class Meeting: Monday, 3:00-5:50 p.m.
Instructor: Dr. John A. Heitmann
Office: HM 435
MWF 10-10:50 a.m., or by appointment
It has been said that the automobile is the perfect technological symbol of American culture, a tangible expression of our quest to level space, time and class, and a reflection of our restless mobility, social and otherwise. In this seminar we will explore together the place of the automobile in American life, and how it transformed business, life on the farm and in the city, the nature and organization of work, leisure time, and the arts. This is a most complex transition that we will study, as the automobile transformed everyday life and the environment in which we operate. It influenced the foods we eat; music we listen to; risks we take; places we visit; errands we run; emotions we feel; movies we watch; stress we endure; and, the air we breathe.
John Heitmann, The Automobile and American Life (McFarland, 2009).
Cotton Seiler, Republic of Drivers (Chicago, 2008).
Kevin Borg, Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth Century America (Johns Hopkins, 2007).
Grades: Course work will consist of seminar lectures, discussions, presentations, films, and optional field trips to the Dayton Concurs and the Kil-Kare Drag Strip near Xenia. Grades will be based on class discussion and 2 three page book review point papers (30%), an assigned book class presentation (25%) and a research paper (45%).
In this class we will define the seminar as a shared learning experience in which one of its purposes is to create new knowledge. Therefore, the research paper is the most significant assignment of this course. It should critically explore an area of knowledge related to the automobile and American life, and ideally should be 15 pages double spaced in length, with footnotes and bibliography, and furthermore draw on minimally 15 sources, primary and secondary. I plan to meet with you individually and collectively during the semester to ensure that your topic has a proper focus and that sources are readily available for your project. A late paper will be penalized one-half letter grade per day.
Among the term paper topics are the following suggestions:
A Reassessment of the Life of Henry Ford II
Edsel Ford and Design during the 1930s
Fast Women -- Women Race Drivers (The Bugatti Queen, Denise McCluggage, and others)
American Board Tracks, 1911-1930
The Vanderbilt Cup, 1936-1937
Eight Tack Tape Players and the Automobile
Sex and the Automobile – either in terms of culture and design, or in terms of sex in cars
Women as Depicted in Automobile Advertising, 1920 - 1980 (you should narrow down the decades)
Seat Belts (or the Airbag, or Crumple Zones) and the Coming of Automobile Safety
Auto Racing Safety, post-WWII -- helmets, roll bars, fire suppression
Automobile Toys -- Ray Cox and the Thimble Drone Racers, etc.
Anti-Auto Literature in America, 1950-1980 (or 1970-2000)
Auto Theft, Organized Crime, and Theft Deterrents
The Automobile and the Environment: California Air Quality after WWII
Automation and the Post-WWII American Auto Industry
Automobile Journalists and Writers – Floyd Clymer
The Automobile and American Literature: fiction written since 1980
The Automobile and Film – Narrow down by decade or genre
Music about the Automobile or about Highways – again, narrow down by period
Drinking and Driving in the 20th Century
Car Jackings and Drive-by Shootings during the 1990s
The Big Three at War: WWII and the American Auto Industry
Industry Pioneers: Hiram Maxim, Alexander Winton, Ransom Olds, or perhaps others
Poetry and the Automobile, narrowed down by period
Buckminster Fuller and his Dymaxion Car; or, aerodynamics, streamlining and culture during the 1930s
The Automobile and Unionism -- Pattern Bargaining
Speed Traps during the 1920s
African-Americans and the Automobile -- use of newspaper databases
Ascot Raceway and the journalists who fought to close it during the 1930s
Hip-Hop and Cars – themes and artists
George Romney and American Motors
You will be required to submit point paper reviews on the books authored by Cotton Seiler and Kevin Borg. These are three page typed short essays that concisely summarize the key theme of each book and discuss how successful each writer was in conveying his or her point. These papers will serve as the starting point of in class discussions.
My book The Automobile and American Life is our key common reading in this class and the touchstone for our discussions. While you will not be tested on this reading, you will be responsible for reading this book and critically commenting on it in class.
Additionally, you must select from the syllabus a book that you will report on to the class at the scheduled time. All books listed are in the Roesch Library or in my possession ; you are to prepare a 20-30 minute presentation in which you discuss the author’s main theme(s), the subject topic of the book and its central narrative, and finally your own assessment of this book and how it enhanced(or stultified) your knowledge and interest in the history of the automobile in America.
Schedule of Assignments and Class Meetings
Week 1 — August 30
Introduction. What our cars tell us about ourselves. The automobile and its inherent contradictions. The automobile in art and as art.
Reading: Heitmann, Introduction.
Film: “Wild Wheels”
Week 2 -- Labor Day, No Class
Week 3 — September 13
Reading: Heitmann, Chapters 1.
Film: “Horatio’s Drive”
Report(s): Michael Berger, The Devil Wagon on God’s Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893-1929 --; Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)--;
Week 4 — September 20
Henry Ford, Fordism, and the Model T.
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 2
Films: Mack Sennet, “Gussle’s Day of Rest( 1915).”
“California Straight Ahead,” (1925); “The Crowd Roars” (1932); “Burn ‘Em Up Barnes’”(1934)
Music: Virginia Liston, Bertha Chippie Hill, Robert Johnson
Report(s): Reynold M. Wik, Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America (Ann Arbor, 1972);
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan, 2009).
Week 5 — September 27
The Rise of General Motors and Sloanism
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 3.
Film: “Roger and Me”
Report(s): Sally H. Clarke, Trust and Power: Consumers, the Modern Corporation, and the Making of the United States Automobile Market (Cambridge, 2007)--; Stuart W. Leslie, Boss Kettering: Wizard of General Motors (Columbia, 1983)--;
Stephen Bayley, Harley Earl (New York, 1990)--.
Short Review of Auto Mechanics is due.
Week 6 — October 4
America on the Road: The Highway and the City;
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 4
Film: “Taken for a Ride”
Reports: Jack Keroauc, On the Road; Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (Johns Hopkins, 1997) – ; William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways (Boston, 1982);
Report(s): Ashleigh Brilliant, The Great Car Craze: How Southern California Collided with the Automobile in the 1920s (Santa Barbara, 1989) – .
Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile (Berkeley, 1987) – .
Week 7 — October 11 Women Behind the Wheel; Religion, Sex, and the Automobile
Readings: Heitmann, Chapter 5
Reports: Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age(New Mexico, 1992) –; Elinor Nauen, Ladies Start your Engines: Women Writers and the Road (Boston, 1996).
Films: “Thelma and Louise;”
Week 8 — October 18
Library and Consultation Day – no class
Week 9 — October 25
The Interwar Years; The Great Depression
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 6.
Reports: David Blanke, Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America’s Car Culture, 1900-1940 (Kansas, 2007)--; Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT, 2008)--;
Week 10 — November 1 WWII and the Reconversion Economy
Reading: Heitmann, Chapter 7.
Report: David Gartman, Auto Opium (New York, 1994);
Term Paper Proposal Due; The Completion of a Working Bibliography of no less than 15 Sources, 5 of which are articles.
Week 11 — November 8
Chrome Dreams of the 1950s
Readings: Heitmann, Chapter 8
Report(s): John Keats, The Insolent Chariots (Philadelphia, 1958) – ; Katie Mills, The Road Story and the Rebel: Moving Through Film, Fiction, and Television (Carbondale, IL, 2006) – .
Film: “Rebel Without a Cause;” “Thunder Road.”
Music: Jackie Berenson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Chuck Berry.
Review of Cotton Seiler's Book is Due
Week 12 — November 15
Muscle Cars of the 1960s; Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys
Readings: Heitmann, Chapter 9
Music: Dead Man’s Curve — Jan and Dean; Little Duce Coupe — The Beach Boys; GTO – Ronny and the Daytonas;
Reports: David Lucsko, The Business of Speed : the Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915-1990 (Johns Hopkins, 2008)--; Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York, 1965) – Tom Lewis, Divided Highways (Viking, 1997) – ; Lee Iacocca, with William Novak, Iacocca: An Autobiography (Bantam, 1984) --;
Film: “Bullitt;” “American Graffiti”
Week 13 — November 22
Safety and the Environment;
Reports: Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed (New York, 1965); Emma Rothchild, Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age (New York, 1973) – ; Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back(Crown, 1997); Brock Yates, The Critical Path (Little, Brown, 1996);
Readings: Flink, pp. 295-345.
Film: “The Vanishing”
Term Paper Progress Reports — Entire Class