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The American Auto: A Hundred Years of Symbolism

The car scene in America is in some ways unchanged from the America Fitzgerald attempted to depict: a land teeming with a variety of vehicles to which some attach tremendous motive and meaning.

I do not currently own a car of any kind, for the record,” writes Ryan Cooper in an article titled, “The Case Against Truck Bloat.” 

I would have guessed as much by the end of the article, a truck rant that expands on Mr. Cooper’s initial tweet that launched this latest round of truck-hate burning through the Internet. 

America is not a pedestrian nation. It works for some in a few cities, but it’s impractical for most Americans. We sprawl. We like our land and our space. We’ve always had a bit of a love affair with our vehicles for practical as well as impractical reasons. We’ve also always known there are dangers. The Great Gatsby, written and published long before the era of big trucks, ends with a pedestrian death that catapults the novel’s action toward the final sad, harrowing scenes. 

Mr. Cooper asserts America is experiencing an, “epidemic of pedestrian deaths.” Rising pedestrian deaths are attributed not only to the big vehicles some demonize but to smartphones. This CNN piece notes that smartphones are a distraction to both drivers as well as pedestrians who continue to use their phone while walking. 

Ultimately pedestrian deaths occur because of the negligence of humans.  Americans are not going to relinquish their large vehicles easily, nor should they. My two young kids are often in the vehicle with me, and this is one of the reasons I drive an SUV as opposed to a smaller car that is less likely to protect them in the event of a road incident. 

My husband drove a Toyota Tundra for a few years. He bought it used, and he got a pretty good deal on it. I did not enjoy driving the truck when necessity forced us to trade vehicles temporarily. I much prefer my Highlander (the Toyota variety, not a Scot). I did feel safe in the Tundra both as a driver and a passenger. It was nice to have a truck when you needed a truck to haul something somewhere. The gas mileage was atrocious, of course, but we made the choice to purchase the truck knowing the trade offs. This is what Americans do. We make choices because we can.

In graduate school I wrote a paper on The Great Gatsby as an ethnography, essentially arguing that Nick Carraway functions not only as narrator but as an ethnographer cataloging, sometimes with awe, sometimes with horror, the culture in which he finds himself immersed after meeting the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. Symbols are cultural maps, the primary way a newcomer explores and begins to understand an unfamiliar culture, and the car as a symbol is established early and often in Gatsby. 

The Great Gatsby was published in April of 1925. At that time many Americans were fascinated with cars and liquor, eager to get their hands on both. The narrative is dependent on vehicles. Early in the novel Nick Carraway recalls that “…the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there [East Egg] to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans. Daisy was my second cousin once removed and I’d known Tom in college.” Nick’s vehicle gives him access to a world otherwise beyond his reach. From this point forward cars play a significant role in the novel. 

Cars make the inaccessible accessible for Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby (and for countless Americans today). Cars are also inextricably tied to status in the novel, and this remains true today, nearly one hundred years after the publication of Gatsby. Nick Carraway’s thick descriptions of vehicles are wonderful. He is essentially describing the car’s owner as much as the vehicle itself. The level of Nick’s interest in a particular character is easily gauged by the attention he affords their car.  Gatsby’s auto is repeatedly and vividly described: 

It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns.

Nick Carraway notes who owns a car and who does not, the style and color of the car, the manner in which the owner handles their car as well as their willingness to lend it to others.  The significance of cars in the novel cannot be overstated; cars and the associations they entail become a lifeline for Nick, a major way he traverses the culture of East Egg and characterizes its inhabitants.

I thought of Gatsby as I read Mr. Cooper’s initial tweet as well as his more detailed piece in which he describes large trucks as “energy-gobbling machines” with “an angry, aggressive face.”

Cars are and have for one hundred years been a cultural symbol in America. In his 1989 book Casing a Promised Land: The Autobiography of an Organizational Detective as Cultural Ethnographer, H.L. Goodall explains that symbols have the ability to, “create and sustain social order, unite and divide individuals, and stand as emblems to the everyday penetrations that the public sphere makes on the private life.” 

Cars, or at least their truck cousins, apparently continue to hold the power to unite and divide individuals. Mr. Cooper channels his feelings about people, in this case the manufacturers of large trucks and SUVs and the individuals who choose to buy and drive them, into descriptions of the trucks themselves.

Cars continue to stand as emblems. For better or worse we make assumptions about people based on the car they drive. Are there practical, non-emblematic reasons to buy a truck or an SUV? Of course. Ask any woman who routinely hauls multiple children, their bikes and sports gear, and a week’s worth of groceries around town. 

What is wonderful about America is that Americans do not have to submit an essay explaining their practical reasons for purchasing a certain vehicle before driving off the lot. Of course, people can assign whatever motives to the purchase they wish. The truck is a phallic symbol. The sports car clearly indicates a mid-life crisis. The car scene in America is in some ways unchanged from the America Fitzgerald attempted to depict: a land teeming with a variety of vehicles to which some attach tremendous motive and meaning. 

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