Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Guest Post: Freedom and Nostalgia on Route 66

I'm delighted to report that my newest publication, an essay called "Two roads diverge: Route 66, 'Route 66,' and the mediation of American ruin" (recently "translated" for a wider audience in Communication Currents) has garnered some positive feedback. A couple days ago I received a kind and thoughtful note from a Route 66 preservationist whom I quoted in the piece, and then I received a lovely email from my former office mate, Phil Wander.

If you're a student of rhetoric or media studies, you've likely heard his name. I read Phil's work in grad school and was subsequently amazed (and a little intimidated) to find myself sharing an office with this fellow upon taking a job at San José State University. Phil has since departed NorCal, earning a prominent position at Loyola Marymount University. Still, we keep in touch. Thus I am particularly grateful for him to have shared his thoughts about my Route 66 piece.

What he offers is a reflection, a critique, a nudge, and a call for next steps, all bound up in the kind of lived-experience memory that demands a broader audience than is allowed by a simple email. I'm honored to share it with you (with his permission, of course).


I grew up along side Rt. 66. It ran by the Outdoor Theatre where I took Nancy Wilson to kiss the night away. And the then-modern truck stop was where the dance band I was in went to get something to eat, around mid-night, after the dance. It held no nostalgia for us, back in the 1950s, it was simply there and useful, as we moved on and off it in our newly discovered teenage car-freedom. The freedom to fly, as I drove my dad's red and white Mercury on an empty Rt. 66 a hundred and four miles an hour, to see how fast she goes, before thinking, the road is wet, the car feels it might be rising, and brakes don't work so good on wet. The freedom to cuddle up in corn fields off country roads that led back to the freeway.

But it was a freedom more real for my father, during the great migration from farms to cities. He loved driving the whole of Iowa, working as an adjuster, negotiating settlements with folks with automobile policies with State Farm. He loved it as much as he loved driving a couple of miles off road to park by a rail road track to watch a train go by. Rail roads took him from the corn fields to Chicago with his dad on a stock car where, with long poles they stayed up all day and all night to make sure the hogs did not fall and die, before they got to the slaughter house.

Two pathways for migration, some forty millions moving South to North from the 1880s to the 1940s, creating what become the other side of the tracks in New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Oakland, and LA, and all metro-points in between and above and below. But the trip on Route 66 was different for those who were not "real Americans." The speed, the movement, was shared, but not the road side attractions. If you were black you expected to piss in culverts, corn fields, and hedge rows. And buy the fixings and wrap your sandwiches up in wax paper. And not move off into the off road farm towns and expect to remain after sundown, before threading your way back to the highway. It was "freedom," of a sort not fit for nostalgia, at least not the kind that white folks enjoy.

I learned this from a conversation I had with the jazz composer, Bill Cole, an old friend from my time at Pitt. His grandfather, a successful dentist in Pittsburgh, did not drive. He took his grandson to a Buick dealership, bought a brand new car, and had him drive the two of them cross country. A dignified old man, successful, even wealthy, but black, and it was hard to find food, a toilet, and a place to sleep anywhere on any highway. And even more dangerous on country roads.

I remember reading Walter Benjamin's essay on the work of "art" in an age of mechanical reproduction. The reproduction for "real Americans," as you point out, has become the sacred, the original, the cliche that was everywhere, for not quite everyone and was anything but sacred.

I loved your essay and understood it, in the way that the peasant woman summoned up by Martin Heidegger from Van Gogh's painting of Shoes left off the real in favor of blood and soil in a claim on national identity inspired by a political movement which promised to preserve peasant life and the virtues it recalled for "real Germans." This is not what you do, of course, but I would like to hear your reflections on Sarah Palin and the tea party on Route 66. The rapid retreat by a political faction into a dream and a need to reload to and get back into the fight once again to make real what never was, even for white people, begins an inquiry into the rhetoric of nostalgia that promises the kind of inclusiveness that the real roads and highways made, up to a point, possible.

Again, I loved the essay. That it is a point of departure rather than a terminal for the wistful, which is not bad either, if well written, and yours is wonderfully evocative writing at many levels, a delight for those of us whose wistfulness for the 50's is bounded by lynchings on one side and above ground nuclear testing on the other, and in between what Herbert Marcuse referred to as the sure-fire way to get beyond one dimensional thought, living, and imagination for kids, the unadulterated pleasures of sex and the revolutionary experience of love.

Philip C. Wander
Loyola Marymount University

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