Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Review of Christopher Wells' Car Country (University of Washington Press, 2012)

Christopher W. Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-295-99215-0.
Christopher Wells' environmental history of the automobile in America to 1960 fills an important gap concerning our knowledge of the complex relationship that evolved between the adoption of the car and changes in the land.  Indeed, both rural and urban use in the U.S. experienced a profound transition during the first half of the twentieth century, much of it due to the widespread diffusion of the automobile. But it was not a one way street, so to speak, as landscape changes did much to prepare the way for the automobile to be at the center of American life. As highways and byways were constructed in response to the needs of numerous constituencies and resulting traffic, the nation became covered with concrete and asphalt, its nonrenewable energy reserves depleted, and its air fouled. Concurrently, however, in the trade-off, Americans reaped the benefit of sustained economic growth, flexibility and freedom for the constraints of space, a psychological obsession with speed, and the conveniences associated with a savings of time.
Beginning with a survey of transportation during the late 19 century and ending with the emergence of a full blown automobile-dependent Car Country in 1960, Wells takes us on a rather relaxed journey that centers on the built environment, arguing that the evolving constructed environment resulted in an America where for most individuals, cars became indispensable to everyday living.  Thus what we are left with is a classic case of path dependency. Yet imbalance rather than authentic flexibility was the dominating characteristic inherent to American transportation options by mid-twentieth century. And in attempting to understand how and why this happened, Wells subsequently pursued a line of scholarship that takes us to this book.
Divided into four sections and held together with a chronological thread, the author's main argument is that land use in America was the key to determining American driving patterns. Land was set aside for various types of thoroughfares (the infrastructure), and traffic laws, policies, and practices were negotiated amongst a group of technical specialists, urban planners, business interests, politicians, and the public. What ultimately emerged was a monoculture "that sacrifices environmental resiliency and complexity," and that this "lost complexity is not just ecological, but social, technological, and economic as well." (p. 289). The spirit of this book, then, borrows much from Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Jane Holtz Kay's Asphalt Nation (1998), without being nearly as shrill as the latter.
While much of the contents of this book contained no real surprises, two ancillary topics were of particular interest to this reader.  First, and drawing on the perceptive work of Peter Norton, Wells raises an important question concerning the viability of what might be called the "love-affair" thesis associated with automobility in America. And here he is right on in characterizing this interpretation as being on thin ice. More likely the love affair with the automobile reflected the thoughts of only a small minority of American car owners at any one time in history, and was perhaps the product of Detroit Three publicists and their journalist followers. This is definitely an area that needs careful fleshing out, but it is safe to say that for many Americans the automobile was always a contrivance to take them from one place to another, and nothing more.  Secondly, in his discussion of the Ford Model T, Wells claims that "The American environment -- and especially poor American roads -- thus had a direct and profound impact on how automotive technology evolved in the United States." (p.44). Again, the author is on to something important conceptually, but he does not follow this up with much of an historical analysis beyond the coming of the closed car in the 1920s. To examine the changing environment in the post-World War II era and engineering and design seems to be a logical follow up, with perhaps fruitful consequences in terms of the history of technology. Such an approach may well begin to explain Detroit excesses during the 1950s and 1960s.
In sum, Wells' monograph is a thoroughly researched and extremely well documented study. The attached bibliography is of real value to anyone interested in transportation history.  I will assign this book in my car culture courses, as it is exemplary of excellent scholarship.

John Heitmann
Department of History
University of Dayton

Dayton, Ohio 

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