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Republic of Drivers

A Cultural History of Automobility in America

Rising gas prices, sprawl and congestion, global warming, even obesity—driving is a factor in many of the most contentious issues of our time. So how did we get here? How did automobile use become so vital to the identity of Americans? Republic of Drivers looks back at the period between 1895 and 1961—from the founding of the first automobile factory in America to the creation of the Interstate Highway System—to find out how driving evolved into a crucial symbol of freedom and agency.
            Cotten Seiler combs through a vast number of historical, social scientific, philosophical, and literary sources to illustrate the importance of driving to modern American conceptions of the self and the social and political order. He finds that as the figure of the driver blurred into the figure of the citizen, automobility became a powerful resource for women, African Americans, and others seeking entry into the public sphere. And yet, he argues, the individualistic but anonymous act of driving has also monopolized our thinking about freedom and democracy, discouraging the crafting of a more sustainable way of life. As our fantasies of the open road turn into fears of a looming energy crisis, Seiler shows us just how we ended up a republic of drivers—and where we might be headed.

240 pages | 10 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Culture Studies

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Political Science: Political and Social Theory

Sociology: Collective Behavior, Mass Communication, Social History


“This is history of the best sort. Republic of Drivers is brilliant, nuanced, and astonishing—the cross-disciplinary scope of this book is close to incredible. Despite the extraordinary reach of his research and thinking, Seiler wears his learning lightly and is sure to reach a wide audience.”

James Livingston, Rutgers University

“Although it’s common to associate American culture with the automobile, Cotten Seiler’s inquiry into the relationship between the pleasures and practices of driving and the character of the modern American citizen-subject is consistently surprising. In addition to being lively, theoretically astute, and extraordinarily well documented, Republicof Drivers provides an utterly convincing account of the relationship between automobility, the economic, social, and cultural conditions that made it possible, and the visions of freedom and agency it promised twentieth-century Americans. This fascinating book should be read by anyone who has ever been captivated by the romance of the road trip or wondered about its significance for American history.”

Janice A. Radway, Northwestern University

“Cotten Seiler’s excellent cultural history of driving operates at the intersection of affect, identity formation, mobility, sovereignty, and the state, with wide-ranging and fascinating results. The best account I have seen of the cultural contradictions of the open road.”

Eric Lott, University of Virginia

"Seiler brilliantly illuminates the phenomenon of ’automobility’ as key to US society and culture from 1895 to 1961. . . . This is a landmark book."

Times Higher Education

"Written with grace and authority and finely wrought insight."

Julia Keller | Chicago Tribune

"Seiler’s argument is strong and elegant because it raises a point of wonder: how did a people, so rash and so blunt in many ways, manage to live out their desires in broad daylight to the extent that they did and still do?"

Andrew O'Hagan | London Review of Books

"Republic of Drivers is likely to become compulsory reading for anyone researching automotive history and may well become a major text for American Studies students who are trained to think in interdisciplinary ways."

Margaret Walsh | Reviews in History

Table of Contents

Introduction: Automobility and American Subjectivity
Chapter 1: Individualism, Taylorization, and the Crisis of Republican Selfhood
Chapter 2: Workmen’s Compensation, Women’s Emancipation: The Promise of Automobility, 1895–1929
Chapter 3: Crafting Autonomous Subjects: Automobility and the Cold War
Chapter 4:  “So That We as a Race Might Have Something Authentic to Travel By”: African American Automobility and Midcentury Liberalism
Chapter 5:  “How Can the Driver Be Remodeled?”: Automobility and the Liberal Subject
Conclusion: Automobility’s Futures
List of Abbreviations

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