Sunday, December 7, 2014

Automobile History Essential Reads: Michael L. Berger's "The Devil Wagon in God's Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893-1929"

Hi folks,
As I am reading books as a background to writing a second edition of my The Automobile and American Life, I plan to share with you my impressions from time to time of books that I think are especially important to understanding the history of the automobile in America.
One such work of significance is Michael L. Berger's The Devil Wagon in God's County: the Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893-1929 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979).  Berger's study, now more than 40 years old, was pathbreaking in its day. A comprehensive examination merging the history of the automobile with social history and rural sociology, the book is the result of superb research that delved into every nook and cranny of farm, village, and town life as it related to the quintessential technology of the 20th century. Or was it the quintessential technology, as Berger is careful to point out that there was a convergence of several new technologies, including radio, telephone, electrical appliances, and more. He is also not a technological determinist, as Berger properly asserted that the automobile is an inanimate thing, and it is people, including the common person, who move history with their decisions.
I was particularly interested in Chapter 5, on religion, since in my The Automobile and American Life I also tackle the subject, but from a comparative framework in which Catholicism and Protestantism are the focal points. Berger's analysis complements mine, and I am sorry I did not draw on it as I wrote my chapter section several years ago. Hopefully that deficit will be addressed next time around.
My criticisms of this book center on its choppiness and use of many indented quotations. Perhaps if the author would have stepped back and then di more synthesis and less analysis the narrative would have flowed better.
However, all in all, this is an important book -- so much so that it is a must read for anyone wanting to formulate a bread view of 20th century automobile history.

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