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To Boldly Go: (Auto)Mobility in 20th Century American Masculine Identity




Brissey, Robert Jr

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation



Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



Abstract This project explores the relationship between masculinity, automobility, and American culture. Moving from the Gilded Age through the middle 20th century, this dissertation describes the changes to automobility with regard to issues of access, symbolic and/or cultural importance, and evolving purposes as they pertain to the lived experiences of American men. Building on the sociological theoretical approaches of both mobility and masculinity in America, I provide a literary focus upon which to evaluate the impact of the automobile on men as they attempt to prove themselves as men in the first half of the 20th century. In The Great Gatsby, we see the automobile emerge as a plaything for the careless rich even as it becomes adapted to a mechanism for masculine control. In The Grapes of Wrath, the burgeoning used automobile market becomes adapted to the purpose of coercive mobility as the Joad men struggle to find work and self-definition. In Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, this project develops a mobile agency spectrum upon which to place Native Son, Invisible Man, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” and “Cadillac Flambé” to measure the response of restrictions to automobility upon Black masculine subjectivity. Finally, Kerouac’s On the Road provides a roadmap for the realization of polymobile masculine subjectivity in the form of found communities in the context of non-public, ephemeral ridesharing. Within the hegemonic paradigm, men find themselves in crisis as opportunities and mechanisms for “making oneself a man” become more and more alienated due to pressures of industrialization, capitalism, and racism. The overall symbolic arc of the automobile is contextualized in the changes to the needs and opportunities for men to prove themselves as men personally and socially. The elusive polymobile masculine subject emerges as a response to such mandatory proving by situating mobility as a human need rather than a demonstration of hegemonic masculine belonging. The “Self-Made Man” mythology is problematized and ultimately replaced by a collectivist, non-violent methodology by which men recognize the shared needs and desires for mobility in the Other.