The consistency of middle class culture in America makes all of these works eerily prescient
As a child, I spent countless hours in the backseat of my parents minivan, an early-90’s Nissan Access, crossing America’s highways en route, generally, to visit relatives for holidays. My memories of that time include watching the power lines following the highway, and imagining some character, either a super-powered version of myself or some established mythic figure of the popular culture, running along the wires like a tightrope, effortlessly keeping pace with the powder-blue beetle my father rocketed across the country. What my memories do not include is any impressive encounters with any of the points between our origin and our destination. That’s not entirely true, there was a ferry between New York and Maine that was somewhat enthralling, but mostly for its incredible ability to carry cars across water than any aspect of the ferry itself.
What I am driving at here is that my family roadtrips represent the eventual development of the trends discussed in the Jakle reading on the automobile’s effect on tourism. Travel was, especially from my miniature perspective, a destination-focussed affair. Celebration was made of favorable traffic conditions, high speeds and quick arrivals. Stops were perfunctory and necessary. McDonalds for a meal. Gas. Snacks or books to stave off the boredom of the passengers and the monotony of the driver. Sighs were heaved upon arrival and our distance and time elapsed recited to the impressed relatives. Cheaper than flying or trains, the road was simply that thing we had to get past as fast as possible.
Jakle essentially opposes the position of Agee, that Americans traveled for the hell of it and the automobile was merely a tool to make that possible. The car, argues Jakle, changed the fundamental purpose of and attitude toward travel.
In the middle of these, commenting on both but challenging neither, is Berkowitz’s meditation on the function of vacation for those who now found they could take them. If the Jakle collects the spirit of my own middle-class tourism experience, Berkowitz collects it from the perspective of my father.
A middle-aged middle-class middle manager, my father had grown up filled to the brim with heady and important road narratives. Certainly some of that was informed by the Depression-era narratives we discussed, but mostly as they were filtered through the 1950’s and 60’s. A teenager in the 1970’s, my father had absorbed Alger, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and not least the globetrotting and gallivanting of his own college-age older brother which drove him to view the open road, and by extension the splendor of America and Nature, as holy places, which should be visited often to renew the spirit.
As my father grew into a suit-and-tie family man, the emphasis was greatly placed on that desire to “renew the spirit.” These road trips, more than the family functions waiting on the far side of them, were essential to the boosting of his spirits, the rejuvenation of his spirit, and his continued effectiveness as a gray-faced office drone.
As the Berkowitz piece aptly demonstrates, corporate culture knew that workers, especially those like my father, required such escapes as a useful release valve to allow them to cope with the pressures of work and remain productive employees. Without his two week paid vacations my father, a naturally energetic adventurer who had in his youth dreamed of being an actor, would have long ago abandoned the corporate drudgery for a tiny apartment in New York City and a shot at Broadway. But because his comfortable middle-class existence afforded him the luxury of travel , of that rejuvenation of the spirit, he was able to endure his slavery.
In that anecdote of my father, gaining perspective and courage with each dink of the odometer, and myself listlessly imagining endlessly running supermen, is the symbolic fulfillment of the promises of all of these pieces predictive statements. For some, the travel is the thing, as Agee promises. It allows the American worker to remain content in the capitalist structure that in its gentle way squashes his truer ambitions, as Berkowitz explains. It is a meaningless race, the endless watching of miles tick away behind you and your destination loom larger ahead, as Jakle implies. The middle class is a simple yet complex thing, and remarkably unchanged in seventy years. It is very easy to have a true notion about its nature, and yet it is always possible to determine yet another explanation that is as true as every other seemingly authoritiative aspect. Like a multi-aspected Hindu god, the middle class is at all times both the chaff and the wheat of the American system, an expression of its deepest complacencies and foolishness and the fulfillment of its highest aspirations and principles.