American Road Narratives – Ann Brigham

First blog of the year! This was from last year’s self-assigned reading, but I’m trying to post weekly, so it wrapped to 2019. Also, there’s probably going to be a gap between this blog and the next, as I spent my holidays reading non-travel books (some Charles Stross, NK Jesmin’s Broken Earth trilogy, In Cold BloodWhite Fang, and a whole series of self-published reverse harem romance novels which were surprisingly good), so I need to catch up with the travel reading/blogging business.

This week’s read was American Road Narratives by Ann Brigham, which I’m pretty sure was this lady’s thesis, tbh. (Good job on getting it book-published!)

Before I go into quotes that I think are awesome or relevant, I have a complaint to make.

I picked out this book from a host of others, primarily because it had a chapter titled “Troubling Scale in Women’s Road Narratives of the 1980s and 1990s”. Me being a naive fool, I thought it would be discussing nonfiction narratives. That I would be able to use this book to plug my reading list hole of female road-trippers in America–because there are so few.

Anyhow, as I implied, the only texts discussed were fiction.

Which is… odd. She had a couple chapters about male road narratives, most of which were nonfiction. But the moment it’s switched to women protagonists, BAM, all fiction.

I was greatly disappointed. And I didn’t understand why she chose the fiction texts she did, rather than the (admittedly few) nonfiction female road-trip narratives. The book mostly ended up being a bust for me, research-wise. And I found myself often disagreeing with her general ideas about travel narratives written by/about women.

I haven’t read the two books she referenced (The Bean Trees and Anywhere But Here), nor seen the movie she references (Thelma & Louise–what else?), and the theories she derived from her close readings felt so… incorrect. But I’m wondering if that’s not her, but the fact that the source material is written by people who probably have not taken a massive American road-trip and have no idea how it actually goes.

Also, if you’re looking at Anywhere But Here, which I have not read, but going from Brigham’s chapter on it and the Amazon summary, the road trip is just a mother-daughter bonding device, while The Bean Trees is a “escape from my shit-hole town” plot. Thelma & Louise, which I still haven’t goddamned seen (I tried once and hated it about ten minutes in so turned it off, though that might have just been a function of my mood at the time) is… whatever that business is. Escaping from the law. (I don’t know what I’m talking about, I just cringe when the movie is mentioned because of what little I saw of it.)

The classic male road-trip narratives aren’t always escapism or bonding, as Brigham notes. They’re often just… adventures for the sake of adventure. Exploring for the sake of exploration. On the Road, Travels with CharleyThe Cruise of the Rolling Junk–all classics, all white men going for the heck of it. (Note: I read Travels with Charley, but can’t seem to find the blog I wrote for it. Now wondering if I read it before I was doing the blog project.)

There seems to be an insistence in this book that women simply can’t go on A Great American Road Trip for the hell of it. And if they dare try, they’ll find something innately stopping them from having the same type of experience that Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald had.

(Which I have proven incorrect. But enough about me.)

Brigham is not the first academic who I’ve read that has insisted that women will most certainly have a different experience, whether through different travel goals or just because women are somehow a different species than men. As if it’s a physical thing, rather than a social.

In fact, I was reading a bit by an older (female) scholar who structured their entire work around nonfiction women travel narratives/road-trips undertaken by women being different because women are driven to create stability and a home, even on the road. (What the fuck?)

Anyhow, before this blog turns into a twenty page rant about sexism perpetuating stereotypes which then perpetuates behavior that then confirms the originating sexism in this never-ending idiotic circle, I’m going to move into the quote portion of our tour.


“The promise of [American] mobility has taken shape in a century’s worth of road films, novels, and nonfiction accounts that have popularized the road trip as a quintessential expression of Americanness.” (3)

“Thus, this book uniquely insists that mobility is not a method of freeing oneself from space, society, or identity, but instead the opposite–a mode of engagement. Indeed, this genre’s significance emerges in its demonstration of the ways mobility both thrives on and tries to manage points of cultural and social conflict.” (4)

“In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the country experienced an upsurge in domestic mobility and xenophobia. The American road trip took hold as a significant form of enacting national citizenship and unity.” (5)

“[…] mobility is motivated by and expressive of shifting desires and objectives. It is always under construction.” (6)

Chapter 1: The Voyage into Democracy

“Early road narratives imbue the newness of cross-country motoring with the powers of ‘metamorphosis’ for both traveler and landscape, incorporating and transforming both into the national.” (19)

“Cross-country motor trips introduce extended forays into unknown terrain, jolting the traveler out of place with their intimate introduction to the nation’s immensity. As they create proximity between strangers and make strangeness alluring, these road trips provoke a desire to couple with something larger than the self: a mate and a country.” (29)

Chapter 2: Post-World War II, Reorientations of Racialized Masculinity

“The road trip provides the physical relocation of perspective necessary to see things differently, and act accordingly. But reorientation is symptomatic as well as productive: it responds to an individual sense of disorientation in a time of flux. It manages or resolves uncertainty with the production of a newly oriented self. In these postwar texts, mobility conveys a larger cultural interest in reorientation–to self, surroundings, and truth–while it also enacts a specifically masculine response to historical uncertainty that develops into a particular iteration of incorporation.” (54)

[In reference to On the Road] “In this case, at least, restlessness responds directly to containment; the male, and I would add white, traveler does not move because he feels he does not belong where he is; he moves because his belonging is the very problem.” (55)

“Before World War II, the skill and endurance required to cross the country in an automobile exemplified American ideals of freedom and democracy. Through physical challenge and personal struggle, the traveler achieved access to unity with the country, and by extension, a sense of national citizenship.” (58)

“Early motorists’ previous experiences of intimacy and immediacy were now newly mediated not only by the presence of so many other travelers but by a service industry that catered to and often dictated the traveler’s experience. Commercial tourism hindered the intrepid motorist’s experience of the road as a space of independence.” (58)

“Road travel allows the unmediated experience necessary for producing new insights. Representing an authorial position quite different from the disaffected stance of ‘high’ modernism, however, these writers undertake the distance in order to burrow themselves into the kaleidoscopic specificity of American. In other words, the project of estrangement is also one of engagement.” (59)

“In those earlier texts, encounters with strangers might prompt self-reflection and critique, but ideally at least, the intention was the creation of a larger union, that is, the accommodation and incorporation of differences into a larger, and perhaps new, identity.” (61)

[Regarding On the Road] “This vision of an unanchored, infinite, and legendary self is, of course, a cosmic permutation of white male power, one specifically enacted through the white masculine fantasy of a boundless self on the move in a borderless world.” (63)

“To wit: hitting the road, the male characters imagine themselves to have unlimited access to everything around them.” (63)

[More regarding On the Road] “Throughout the novel, the privileges of white masculinity, which include both the promise of social mobility and the freedom to rebel against the conventionality it represents, are deflected with an attention to antagonism between the sexes. In other words, the story of the mobile white male outsider is repeatedly told as one of the beleaguered heterosexual male. Pointing out the novel’s sexist, aggressive, and misogynist attitudes toward women, critics have compellingly argued that the novel’s treatment of women is based on a male rejection and fear of domesticity and a ‘feminized suburbia.'” (67)

“Their mobility rejects a particular white middle-class ideology of social mobility in which the self is incorporated through conventional institutions, resulting in place-bound social integration (e.g. marriage).” (71)

Chapter 3: Troubling Scale in Women’s Road Narratievs of the 1980s and 1990s

“Though prevalent before World War II, road narratives featuring female travelers disappeared after the war, suggesting that, among other things, discourses of mobility were prominently articulated and defined in relation to an ideology of masculinity during the cold war and civil rights eras.” (106)

“[Female] Characters use the road to find a new home, set up myriad homes while on the road, or are haunted by home in their travels. In short, domesticity infiltrates mobiilty, and the road concerns itself with the very space it is seemingly designed to escape.” (106)

“As we watch the performance of revelation, we view the white, female protagonists experience a tension between the idea that what is revealed to you on the road is not so good, and the belief that the process of revelation is inherently positive.” (112)

“In countless road stories, mobility signifies a liberating abandonment–of rules, people, and ways of life. Here, mobility occurs as both an act of, and an antidote to, abandonment. Female protagonists abandon domestic situations, hometowns, abusive relationships, bad jobs, and birth names. Mothers abandon their children. Yet mobility also serves as an antidote to women’s abandonment in that those things they abandon–dead-end jobs, relationships, and life prospects–suggest how the women themselves have been abandoned by a patriarchal society.” (112)

“For many male travelers, the road represents a place where not caring about the outcome–or, geographically, the destination–is the goal and the point. Male characters acts of abandonment exemplify, at least initially, expressions of autonomy and empowerment. They represent the ability to rebel, even if the desired end is not realized. By contrast, the female protagonists’ acts of abandonment reveal their lack of power and independence in a larger social order. Often stemming from the women’s lack of means to control or change a situation, their mobility draws attention to the scarcity of choices and resources that shape their lives.” (113)

“There is no option for impulsive movement or momentary desire.” (113)