Romance of the Road – Ronald Primeau

I’m in Los Angeles and I have a cold. That is all.

Deviating from the reading list norm for this and another book, please bear with me during this time of great inconvenience for us all. (That’s a joke.)

These are quotes/notes from Ronald Primeau’s literary theory book on American road trips, titled Romance of the Road. I picked up this and another road trip theory book to wrap up the year’s travel reading and, due to my fortune(?) of having a MA in English Literature, I can understand most of the academicese that permeates both books. (The “academic” style of writing is another rant for another time.)

Anyhow, this isn’t a review or collection of thoughts as much as it is a collection of quotes that I have selected in order to condense the important points of this book into one area for me to mull over in hopes of taking my own book to the next level. (These quotes in no way capture the entire essence of the book, so don’t feel that reading these is a good substitute for reading the book.)

I’m a big fan of theory–though not so much the language it is written in–and I strongly believe that understanding why people respond to what is incredibly important when creating something.

That is not to say that you should create something deep and personal to you with these thoughts in mind, but that once your shitty first draft is down, you should probably take the option of reading theory on your field of choice so when you edit it into that amazing final draft, your readers will respond and understand in ways that are beneficial to both you and them.

This is all very awkwardly phrased, but it’s still early and I’m only halfway through my coffee. Please pretend all of the above was phrased very elegantly and that I am a wordsmith of the highest order.


Notes and Quotes!

Chapter 1: Introduction

“But the later Bildungsroman shaped a new artistic vision where human experience was no longer a private matter; rather, the hero grows along with the world and even represents ‘the historical emergence of the world itself.’ The literary hero is thus created not to fit into a category or imitate a model but to embody a process of growth or transition between epochs that is ‘accomplished in him and through him.’ The American road genre expresses this kind of emergence, reflecting in the road hero evolving social and cultural values and beliefs.” (3)

“Space on the road is not a passive background or a completed scene travelers merely pass through, but is itself an evolving interaction of the pastoral landscape and cultural symbols.” (3)

“[…]the road narrative adapts its own departure rituals for detachment from normal events and everyday delegations, a time of reveling in a free-floating state beyond ordinary spatiotemporal bounds, and a reentry stage wherein the renewed–or at least changed–subject returns to and comments on the cultural and social order.” (4)

“A recurring hero deed in modern American is the automobile journey with its call to adventure on the open road, its initiation rites of trials, threshold crossings, conflict, return, and resurrection. Although the pronounced optimism and naivete of the highway quest evade some of the struggles and burdens of the ancient mythic stories, the pattern of flight, trials, and reentry repeats the motivating power of the monomyth.” (7)

“In the telling of adventures that may be as available as the nearest set of car keys, the highway myth-maker articulates a cultural consensus about what is real and what matters in society.” (7)

“[…]because life on the road exposes the inadequacies of people and institutions back home, road narratives develop overt countercultural protest or use the conventional form to subvert present ideologies. In reaching a very wide audience, road stories function like the mass media in their creation of a place for negotiated definitions and redefinitions of values and political choices within an ever-changing institutionalized system.” (7-8)

“Road narratives are often popular precisely because they express ‘indifferent attitudes toward the life of the mind and the protocols of knowledge,’ they appeal ‘to the body in ways which cannot always be trusted,’ and they celebrate ‘pleasures which a training in political rationality encourages us to devalue.'” (13)

“Road narratives invite us at the same time to celebrate heroes and places and values that were never there except in our hopes, our imaginations, and our ability to construct myths. The small town has probably never been idyllic, no individual has ever fully discovered a self, and the national identity is hard to find in part because it is constructed rather than found. The carnivalesque playfulness of road travel draws attention to the way the mind reshapes through imagination. Gentle parody of the quest and the pilgrimage underscore both the wanderlust and arbitrariness of what a dominant culture takes to be the norm. Irreverent protest on the journey further attacks the dominant values as imposed constructs and multicultural questers demythologize interpretations as they critique old stories.” (14)

“Each road narrative is an individual text, but it becomes a part of the genre that represents a culture in dialogue about national and self identity, social values, and opportunity. The form is particularly American and immensely popular because so many of the questions remain open to debate.” (16)

“While literary forms are a conserving force in the mnemonic devices of our story telling, the road narrative stretches beyond literary constraints and into a socially constructed dialogue about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we might yet still go.” (16)

Chapter 2: Backgrounds: A Chronology of Genre Memory

“To reach an audience successfully, any new creation reinforces or modifies what has worked before. Familiarity with a contest of established conventions makes both the predictable and the innovative accessible to an audience.” (17)

“The road narrative has evolved into a socially constructed vision of a community defining itself in motion[…]” (17)

“From the circling, churning pattern of motion and rhizomatic multiplicity, the modern highway traveler inherited a tradition of ambivalence wherein movement itself would become at least as important as reaching a goal.” (19)

(Blogger’s Note: “rhizomatic”? Does anyone know the definition for that off the top of their heads, or is everyone reaching for a dictionary/Google when they hit that word?)

“Nineteenth century American travel writing also blended imagined stories with recollections of actual experiences. As a result, writers presented a world that is defined not prior to experience but rather through the recorded observations of people in motion.” (19)

“The traveler’s remaking of the world in writing is one legacy of the American quest motif.” (19)

“Lynn notes that ‘to a people publicly committed to the frantic hustle of the American way of life, the idea of quitting work, of simply walking out, suddenly and without an explanation, on all responsibilities, has been a haunting one.'” (20)

“On the road, the soul is at home in its fully passionate and unqualified acceptance of and exposure to all. Paradise is neither above the world nor within the self but in the accumulated highway experiences.” (21-2)

“Because automobiles and highways ‘froze the values of the frontier by making movement a permanent state of mind,’ what had been migration turned into circulation. While once a means of getting from one place to another, roads themselves slowly became the place to be: the place for searching, escape, and self-discovery.” (23)

“[…]on the road, there is more often than not a dialogue involving not only authors and readers but all those who have taken trips themselves and read or written road stories of their own. As later road narratives appear in the merging lane, the effect is not combat but a collaboration in which genre conventions recombine and emerge into new visions.” (30)

“At any given time […], the road narrative is an evolving genre in which writers and readers explore together who they are, where they are headed, how things are going, and what might still be possible.” (31)

Chapter 3: Disharmony and Protest

“In some ways, all road trips are protests. People leave home to change the scene, to overcome being defined by custom, tradition, and circumstances back home, and–at least for a while–to construct an alternative way of living. Time on the road creates opportunities to question the existing social order and explore values that run counter to what is dominant in the culture.” (33)

“Working with recognizable elements of the picaresque, the pilgrimage, and the Bildung, Kerouac shaped a distinctly American Beat version of the pain of lost bliss and the attempt to recover paradise through the power and speed of the road.” (430

Chapter 4: Search for National Identity

“Road towns, highways, regions, and values–where narrators want to recover the old ways or to clean the lenses of perception to see again what is still there.” (51)

“A nation only two hundred years old will understandably spend much time and energy trying to find its identity. By world standards, America is very young, restless, and less secure than older nations about its history and traditions. […] In an effort to define a national identity, therefore, road genre conventions develop in three basic patterns: a quest for the soul of a nation, retracings of earlier classic journeys, and studies of specific regions.” (51)

“Trying to correct an overemphasis on speed and efficiency, the road narrative hopes to restore contact with the landscape, people, and customs of distinctive regions throughout the country. With Whitman, road authors want to examine the riches of the whole by exploring and holding on to the local. In keeping with the highway quester’s desire to preserve or rediscover the very old, special attention has been given to the land and people found in the nation’s heartland.” (63)

“The primary motivating force of the American road quest is a longing to return to the time when the stream was deeper, when local customs and regional culture were preserved–a time before the landscape was pasted over with billboards and interstates circumvented the old highways.” (65)

“In its grand scale, sweeping scope, and positioning along the route westward, the roadside attraction is a monument to the frontier myth. What was always larger than life in American dreams, stories, and daily life is personified in the iconography of roadside sculpture that extends the aesthetic of the frontier.” (66)

“The art and architecture of the American highway provide symbols to reinforce the urgency of the road quest. For generations of Americans who had seen travel as an escape from routine, the roadside became a ‘privileged zone, strewn with marvels for the delectation of the wayfarer,’ a nearby frontier, a place of hopes and dreams where all things are possible. The spin-off has given us miniature golf, increasingly adorned motel complexes, and roadside colossi post cards. In the enthusiasm and glitter, roadside dreamers became hoaxsters who want to fool themselves with the highway’s magic and wonder. Like the road itself, the colossus reproduces the paradoxes of the American quest: perpetual motion that attempts to freeze time, monuments to antiquity made of the ever-new and the grotesque, the search for the infinite in the finite, expanse symbolized by enclosed space, the lonely individual in tourist-trap crowds, and the self-exploration of a single identity in a mass society.” (66-7)

(Blogger’s Note: That above paragraph is magnificent.)

Chapter 5: Journeys of Self-Discovery

“The road is freedom from schedules, commitments, memberships, and credentials; the highway journey also suspends for a while definition according to one’s origins, profession, and geography. Movement also leaves behind restricting ways of looking at oneself and brings at least temporarily a frozen time and ever-changing space where all is possible.” (69)

“Highway travelers give up–or are released from–a social structure that impinges upon dreams and aspirations.” (69)

“Among the benefits of liminality on the modern road is the opportunity to start over and discover one’s inner resources and potential. The liminar as author or narrator expresses this potentiality in a prose narrative story, the reading of which becomes for readers a participation in a liminal experience of their own. Thus the telling, reading, and living of the story of life on the road beings texts, readers, and authors into a dialogue of self-exploration.” (69-70)

“Journeys of self-discovery often express the residual cultural values of the American cowboy motif with its frontier spirit and adulation for the rugged individualist.” (73)

“Sealed off in the high-speed meditative space of the large American automobile, drivers are given opportunities to experience the liminal. In pilgrimages throughout time, the vehicle of transience has traditionally afforded the pilgrim space ‘outside or between routine structures’ where one can renounce home and move from town to town.” (79)

“Whether explicit or implied, the built-in listener is prominent in all American road narratives.” (80)

“In the literature of the American highway, the car has been a time machine in which drivers look for the past, a weapon of social protest, a psychiatrist’s couch of therapeutic healing, a shrine of displaced theology.” (83)

“Commentators have long ago noted the central place of the pastoral in the American sense of quest. Automobile travel is a threat to virgin land and an intrusion into the paradise of the garden. In American road narratives, the automobile is at once and intruder in paradise and the creator of a new paradise within.” (84)

“In a variety of ways, the automobile in motion is the insulating vehicle which precipitates the modern journey of self discovery. Protected from external threats and enclosed in sacred space, road heroes find meditative silence, liminality, and heightened conversation. Interacting with passengers, hitchhikers, or the people they meet along the way, listening to the neglected wisdom of outsiders, or tuned into the world through the radio, the hero behind the wheel finds the protective shell of the car to be both a shield and a source of renewable vision and energy.” (88)

“New forms are not simply arbitary combinations of elements but evolve because writers and readers discover in the writing and reading processes new ways to understand and express their views of the world.” (88)

Chapter 6: Escape, Experimentation, and Parody

“These worries about whether cars would bring improvements or dehumanizing experiences led some road authors to suffer from–even as they embraced–a kind of double jeopardy. Road heroes and antiheroes became annoyed with both progress and protest against progress.” (93)

“The lure of motion, the need to escape, the mystique of the quest, and even the multiple intrusions of media and spectacle–all have been woven into the American experience through the symbolic power of roads and cars.” (100)

Chapter 7: The American Highway and Cultural Diversity

“Most American road narratives have been lived, written, and published by white males. This dominance is easy enough to understand, given the history of both American travel and American authorship. Native Americans, African Americans, women, and other minorities have moved around North America for centuries but not usually in the manner of the road question conventions.” (107)

“In spite of their curiosity about jazz and ghetto life, most American road narratives of the ’50s and ’60s presented a white male’s world oriented toward success, fast movement, and little concern for women or multicultural experience.” (108)

“A closer look at early travel literature in America explains why there have been so few road narratives by women. Granted, there were fewer women behind the wheel; male-dominated canons of American literature also discouraged women who did travel from writing or even thinking their stories would interest anyone.” (109)

“What women saved and restored in their own fantasies about the landscape was pushed into the background of America’s developing mythos, while the male emphasis on the wilderness Adam pushing across the virginal landscape is repeated on the highway.” (109)

“Although each stage of life has its own car symbols signifying sexual prowess, status, or domestication, the foremost ritual is the important puberty rite when the adolescent male feels the power of acceleration and the freedom to shape his own destiny through movement.” (109)

“Without the leisure time for exploration or even to enjoy her own garden, the pioneer woman mastered ‘defiant survival’ and learned to carry her own roots with her wherever she was forced to move.” (115)

“American road narratives by women slow the pace, rechart the itineraries, and reassess the goals within the conventions of the typical road quest.” (115)

“[…] women on the road hoped to evade some of the less appealing dimensions of the highway hero’s single-minded, self-centered and exploitative frenzy. Women bring a calming influence to the American road. With not as many highs to seek and maintain, the accompanying lows are modulated. The quest is not so manic, the goals are more realistic, and the state of mind is more even.” (115-6)

“In travel narratives from the 19th century to present American road narratives, women have attempted to correct what they felt was going wrong with the quest. Their imagery was meant to counter what they felt was misguided in the male fantasies.” (116)

[Blogger’s note: this is all so very sexist. But this book is from the mid ’90s. Also, it appears that academic work on female road narratives (most of which, in this book, are mostly fictional) is entirely lacking. He mostly references a work/set of works by an Anne Kolodny who has put forth this “women are naturally calming influences” idea.]

“When women go on the road or write road novels, the recorded experiences and literary conventions change significantly. The same is true in road experiences where many African-Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities have different road stories to tell, and they thus modify the conventions of the road quest to reflect very different perspectives. Because many of the conventional road heroes are outsiders politically or socially, the genre has developed against the grain of dominant cultural norms.” (116)

“For the African American on the highway, the road is not always open and dangers cannot be for long overlooked. ‘I do not believe white travelers have any idea of how much nerve and courage it requires for a Negro to drive coast to coast in America,’ [John A.] Williams notes. ‘Nerve, courage, and a great deal of luck.'” (117)

“African Americans do travel and do write about traveling, but not usually for the same reasons and with none of the reckless abandon of the white male on a quest for self-discovery.” (117)

“[John A.] Williams takes with him a list of places in America where African Americans can stay without being ’embarrassed, insulted, or worse.’ He speaks of the need in the South to always ‘remember where you are,’ recalling that Northern Negroes traveling in the South would often wear a chauffeur’s cap or at least have one on the seat. They would often pretend they were delivering their car for white folks and never feel safe until with friends in a Negro neighborhood.” (117)

[Blogger’s note: This is horrifying. Inspiring of outrage. It’s hard to even begin imagining not being able to take a road trip because of one’s skin (aka: because of awful, hateful people).]

[Blogger’s note part deux: John A. Williams’ book This is My Country Too can and should be bought by clicking on this link.]

“The caution he [Williams] remember to feel everywhere prohibits the freedom of movement available to the conventional road quester, but the same restrictions also enhance his acute sense of freedom, his view of the automobile as both protect and danger, and his dedication to life on the edge. The car is protection for African Americans traveling through real or trumped-up legal problems that bring down the law. Everywhere he faces the threat of lynching or beatings from the night riders. Rather than retreat, however, Williams drives into the danger. Advised to take a less dangerous route, he nonetheless wants to ‘drive the cliff edge’ in order ‘to live with myself and in order to overcome the shame I suddenly felt to confess my tiredness, my tension,’ to the white man. Danger thus restricts and reshapes Williams’s experiences and leads him to modify road genre conventions.” (118)

“His [Williams] resolution is deliberately ambiguous as his disgust about bigotry, fundamentalist righteousness,, and hypocrisy is accompanied by the hope that the search will go on. The point of the quest, he decides, is not to observe ancient temples of monuments but to bring American ideals to realization. Though too few people pursue this search, he warns, the road continues to symbolize the movement and energy of ‘living up to the ideals we have set for ourselves.'” (119)

“Road narratives by and about women and non-white males dramatize what is alluring about the genre on the whole: getting away, staying away, and searching have the effect of questioning the status quo.” (125)

“From Whitman to the present, the road has invited travelers and readers alike to challenge norms and values, to ask new questions and to make an impact upon reentry.” (125)

Chapter 8: Reentry and the Road Mythos

“The road journey requires coming home as well, though the inevitable return voyage and experience of reentry are often fraught with problems. The hero’s reluctance to return is increased by the lure of continued adventure, visionary insight, or the modern automotive equivalent of what [Joseph] Campbell calls the bliss of the deep abode.” (127)

“To restore equilibrium and keep the mythic cycle going, to satisfy the curiosity and jealousy felt back home about those who leave, and to complete the journey in the telling of the story, the hero must return–even if at times ‘the world may have to come and get him.'” (127)

“No matter the itinerary, there comes a time when the traveler senses that the going forth is over and the heading back home must begin.” (127)

“In one sense, heading home means that the trip is over and the innocence of exploration on the outbound road is lost. At the same time, however, being homeward bound brings new and indispensable insights that were unavailable earlier. On the way home, the hero is more experienced and wiser, and what had been boundless enthusiasm gives way to a measured and more mature judgement.” (128)

“The dilemma of turning back provides a focal point of theme, character development and narrative structure in the literature of the highway.” (128)

“The choices of where, when, and why to turn back are crucial factors shaping the quest. Some head home following a clear plan, others by necessity and still others try to keep going. With a sense of mission completed, many road heroes are eager to get home.” (129)

“Many road narratives stop before the return trip is completed and the difficulties or reentry begin; others make the arrival home a central ingredient of the plot. Most frustrating for protagonists is coming home to find out that no one really wants to hear about the trip.” (129)

“Anticipation of reentry is part of an audience’s expectations for road narratives. Even in the action of holding a book physically, readers have a sense of when they are going to run out of pages.” (130)

“In non-fiction road journeys, reentry often includes the narrator’s interpretation of the trip’s significance.” (130)

“Educative experience in the road journey is often represented during reentry in symbols of death and rebirth wherein knowledge is born through death of the self–a convention paradox of losing one’s life to gain it.” (131)

“In Campbell’s terms, ‘the road of trials’ in the classic hero journey involves a cleansing and humbling of the senses which leads to ‘self-purification.’ Foremost among the perils of the road quest is the confrontation with death.” (131)

“Death also haunts American road literature as an ever-present reminder of the dangers of speed and the limits of the journey itself. No matter how expansive and exciting the lines of the open road become, danger is never far away.” (132)

“In the shadow of accidents and the threat of death, highway adventures create a community of heroes united by motives and shared stories.” (132)

“[…] indefinitely postponed reentry is in the tradition of what Campbell describes as the hero’s refusal to return to the mundane.” (133)

“Most returning heroes of the American road quest come home with messages of self-knowledge, death to ego and rebirth of self, and improved relationships. Even with these successes, however, neither the reentry nor the imparting of the message is easy or without a significant price.” (133)

“[…] the hero’s most difficult tasks are to be understood and make intelligible pronouncements to people trapped in the mundane and the banal. After a soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment the hero must be able to accept the existential anguish and tedium of the ordinary.” (133)

“That temptation on the highway is the hypnotic romance of the road itself, the desire to stop only for gas and follow the white line to power, speed, and perpetual motion. American road heroes transcend of evade much of the anguish of reentry through the force of optimism and exuberance.” (134)

“At once the most triumphant and the most burdensome act of reentry is proclaiming the word in the actual writing of the road narrative. Whether travelers record events in notes along the way, follow William Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility, or study successive revisions, they compose meaning into the road experience most fully in the writing process itself.” (135)

“Research on the composing process has shown writing to be a mode of discovery, a way of learning, a development of insight as it takes shape on the page.” (135)

“The genre thus involves readers in this self-reflexive process by exposing the narrative machinery and taking a look at how plots take shape. Prose narratives are generally more self-reflexive on reentry than other media. While highway songs and road films celebrate adventure stories and action-packed experiences, prose discourse is more reflexive in analyzing the construction of the journey as it takes shape.” (136)

“Coming home means writing the story–a process that takes place not in isolation, but under the influence of journeys already made and books already written: each new road quester heads down well-worn highways.” (136)

“Whether reentry brings self-knowledge, rebirth, a heightened experience of everyday life, or the tentativeness of lapsing vision, the hero discovers the meaning of the quest only in the proclaiming of the word. Writing a story is a way of finding order in experience. Each new story preserved and destroys something of the old stories as it passes on and revises the road mythos.” (138)


“[…] the road narrative which is read and interpreted and becomes part of the ongoing conversation about where we have been and what we might yet become.” (143)