A half-century ago James Agee hit the road on assignment for Fortune magazine to write about "The Great American Roadside." He found an America possessed by "a restiveness unlike that any race before has known" and commented:
"So God made the American restive. The American in turn and in due time got into the automobile and found it good. The war exasperated his restiveness and the Twenties made him rich and more restive still and he found the automobile not merely good but better and better. It was good because continually it satisfied and at the same time greatly sharpened his hunger for movement: which is very probably the profoundest and most compelling of American hungers. The fact is that the automobile became a hypnosis . . . "
Agee was right, but Phil Patton would like to amend that analysis. Patton argues, with considerable justification, that when we talk about "the impact of the automobile," we are too quick to overlook the surface on which it is driven; "it is the highway," he says, "that has been the direct agent of changes in our physical, economic and social landscape." In "Open Road" he attempts, with limited success, to set matters in perspective.
"Open Road" covers a lot of territory, though too often only superficially. It is a history of the American highway, from the Natchez Trace to the interstate; it describes the evolution of highway design, the roadside strip, the franchises; it shows how the road has been depicted in literature, film and photography. It does all of this, and in the process brings together an impressive amount of useful, interesting and occasionally entertaining information, much of which Patton interprets in provocative ways. Which makes it all the more regrettable that his prose is singularly uninviting; this may be the open road, but it's strictly pedestrian.
Its best section is the first, the history of American roads. Patton points out the important role played by Thomas Jefferson in early road building: "His vision of roads into the territories was closely tied to his whole political philosophy. Americans were to pursue happiness down roads that led to inexpensive land in the West. There they would become yeoman farmers, husbandmen, ploughmen, for land was not only the only natural source of wealth, but in contrast to the corruptions of the city and its manufacturers, the only morally healthy locale." Yet if a president provided leadership and inspiration, then as now it was the states rather than the federal government that actually built the roads; "the federal role was one not of construction or designation of highways but of protection and support."
No state built them more prodigiously than Louisiana during the 1930s under the governorship of Huey Long, who, whatever his many shortcomings, "is remembered for having built one of the best road systems in the country -- and, better than any politician before him, having seized on the populist political reward of roadbuilding." But the roads Long built were for the most part of the farm-to-market variety. To the north, roads of a more sophisticated variety were coming into being at about the same time: the scenic parkways, perhaps most notable among them the Taconic State in New York, and the high-speed freeways, most notably the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that were the precursors of the interstates.
"The Interstate program," Patton writes, "was the last New Deal program and the first space program, combining the economic and social programs of the former with the technological and organizational virtuosity, the sense of national prestige and achievement, of the latter." The effect of the interstates is well-documented, though it is worth observing that they did not kill off the railroads; this, as Patton demonstrates, had effectively been done before World War I, by the arrival of the automobile and the self-destructive cupidity of the railroads' owners.
Patton writes informatively about highway design -- "the straight line was the highway designer's greatest enemy, in terms of both safety and aesthetics" -- but unfortunately he has almost nothing to say about highway construction; the book would be much more useful had he included a chapter describing how a modern highway is built. As for the other matters that come under his purview -- the whole business of roadside America, from McDonald's to "On the Road" -- he contributes nothing more than a once-over-lightly presentation of material that for the most part has been more thoroughly treated in other publications. He had an interesting idea for a book, but on the whole he did not manage to make an interesting book out of it.