The Struggles of Modern American Youth and the Coming Together of a Generation ~ Matia Guardabascio

Modern American Youth are notoriously referred to as Generation Y or Millennials. Attempts to name and define our generation have mostly come from those who are not members of this generation. Our identity as a group, as a demographic, as a social class: it must come from within. We cannot let the world tell us who we are; we must assert our own identity. We are Modern American Youth. I call us the MAY Generation. This name not only serves as an acronym for our demographic, but it also refers to the month of May—the time of year when many of us who have completed a college degree are tossed into a world that offers little in the area of employment. May is the month in which we are unleashed into a world that is simply not ready for us.

Part I: The Struggle

I have often heard people joke that the only jobs for college graduates these days are barista positions at Starbucks. Though this remark is often made in jest, it rings true to my ears as I have met many of my fellow young people who complain about their crappy low wage jobs. They should complain. They—we—have every right to be upset. The MAY Generation has incurred debts from either college or credit cards, or both, that near the cost of a car or even a small mortgage. Many have taken on this debt for the sake of higher education—an education that supposedly ensures better job opportunities upon its completion. There are several articles available to read on research that states that those who have a college degree will make more money in their lifetime because the work offered at that level pays significantly more than not having a degree would earn.[i] Under more stable economic circumstances, this assertion would be true. With growing debt and few prospects for a reliable income, many among the MAY Generation are questioning whether the college degree was worth it in the first place. Many of us are angry or may feel betrayed because of the lack of employment and the ever-rising cost of college. ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ is a question I often hear. So what are we doing? How is our generation coping with the unfulfilled promise of higher education?

The truth is that instead of competing with other college graduates for entry level jobs, today’s college graduates are competing not only with each other, but with others among our generation who have not completed a college degree, for minimum or middle wage jobs. This competition in turn only adds to the unemployment issue.

However, beyond the competition for barista positions, the MAY Generation is seeking out ways to defer or pay down debt or to gain job experience through unpaid internships or community service oriented opportunities. One such path is Teach for America. In 2009 around 35,000 applications were received for 4,100 possible positions. Last year the number of applicants increased by 11,000 to a total of 46,000 applications for only 4,400 openings. Back in 2006 there were only 19,000 applicants for 2,400 positions. The number of applicants has more than doubled whereas the number of available positions has yet to do so, even though there has been a noticeable increase in Teach For America opportunities.[ii] Others among the MAY Generation are joining the Peace Corps or partaking in other long-term commitment community service programs like Americorps or City Year in order to stave off debt or to wait for the job market to bounce back.

More and more I hear of recent graduates who are leaving the U.S. to teach English in another country (many to East Asian countries like Korea where the demand for native English speakers is high). The ‘Teach English Overseas’ gig is growing very popular from what I’ve gathered. It’s an exciting prospect for many because of the traveling and the ability to renew terms in case one chooses to stay longer. A large number of recent graduates among the MAY Generation are also going back to school almost immediately in order to not only continue to defer debt, but also to wait out the job market and try again to find a job when yet another degree has been earned and even more debt incurred.

Still—many among the MAY Generation are stuck in dead end jobs, continuously exploring the barren wasteland of entry level job opportunities. Discouragement spreads quickly when so many have so little hope. But this is no time for despair. This is a time for self-betterment—a time to get creative. With spare time building up between applying for jobs, or the lingering hours after a day at some in between job, or the time spent traveling—all this left over time breeds uncertainty.

I say, embrace the uncertainty. Harness it. Channel it towards something positive, something creative, something that exemplifies those parts of yourself that lay in wait while you do the things you must. Unleash those parts of yourself that a world built of hopelessness would aim to crush. Our generation has an opportunity to reach out to one another, to forge a connection because of our shared struggles. We have an unprecedented opportunity to come together and make our place in society and in this world—to show everyone what we’re really made of. The MAY Generation is smart, resourceful, creative, spirited, and adventurous. It’s time to harness those traits and put them to use in order to realize our collective social power and cultural influence. It’s time to start the MAY Movement.

Part II: The Movement

When I say ‘movement’ I do not mean marching in the streets with signs chanting “Employment Now! Employment Now!” We are not a labor union. But we cannot sit idly by. Inaction is not an option. Our movement is not a political one, but rather a social and cultural one. Consider what the MAY Generation is already doing to occupy their time: community service projects and teaching stateside and overseas. These pursuits are altruistic in nature and have a positive social and cultural impact. We have already started the movement; what we need now is to make our efforts widespread. One of our greatest assets is the fact that there are so many of us. Power in numbers, right? But like any movement that aims to be successful, we must first have goals and a sense of direction. What are those goals? In what direction are we, or should we aim to head?

The greatest obstacle that we face in pursuing this movement is not imposed upon us like the forces of nature or of the economy. Our greatest obstacle is overcoming the uncertainty within ourselves that has built up as a result of our uncertain place in the world. The first goal of the MAY Movement is to embrace uncertainty. What do I mean by that? How does one embrace uncertainty? The answer is remarkably simple: to embrace uncertainty is to accept it. The only way to accept it is to understand that our uncertain place in this world is actually a tremendous freedom. The author Andre Gide said “to know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.” For us this means that to realize our freedom is the easy part; it’s what we should do with it that poses the real challenge.

The second goal of the MAY Movement aims to meet that challenge. As I said previously, this is a time to get creative, to exemplify what you’re good at; this is a time for self-betterment. How do you do that? You find ways to keep up with the things you want to do. Let me say that again, keep up with the things you want to do. So often I hear people our age say, “I work at blah place doing blah, but what I really want to do is this…” “What I really want to do is…” Don’t talk about wanting to do it. Do it. Make it a personal project. Maybe you’re an artist and you’d like to put your work out there: find a blog or an organization or a publication that needs some artistic know-how. Maybe you’ll write for a blog or for a free subjective publication like the Johnsonville Press—who knows! The point is to gain experience doing what you want to do. It may not be paid, but it’s a way to get better at what you want to do, to practice, to help out someone else who needs what you can offer. Let’s say for example that you speak a foreign language, but you can’t afford to travel: you could offer yourself as a private tutor at a local high school or middle school (perhaps even your old high school if you live at home). Many cities also have embassies and cultural centers that offer events, courses and various opportunities to meet and converse with people who also want to maintain their language. Whatever your trade, hobby or area of interest, you should seek out places where you can put them to use. Maybe you can make a little side money from these projects. You can even start something of your own creation and become an entrepreneur.

Just think for a second about the skills that our generation has that don’t even come from the education system. The MAY Generation is on the up when it comes to social media. That is a marketable skill. Just think about how many small businesses lack good social networking, like a Facebook page, or even a maintained website. You can help them with that while at the same time gaining valuable experience and building a network of people you’ve helped. The goal of these suggestions is to show you that there are many ways to keep up with the things you want to do.

By pursuing these personal projects you are opening the door to the third goal of the MAY Movement: networking. Networking is about mingling. It’s about conversing with people, giving them a sense of who you are and what you’re about. It’s about reading people and learning to understand the dynamics of professional and socially professional situations. If you want to be successful at networking you need to be a good observer. Good observations lead to good talking points in a conversation. You should also definitely get business cards that tell people who you are and what you do. Keep it simple; you can even design them yourself if that’s your trade. The exchange of business cards is always a good conversation starter. Networking helps you develop your conversational skills so that you become really good at telling people who you are. This is a particularly valuable asset in a job interview. Some people call it “knowing how to sell yourself,” but I’d say it’s more like “knowing how to confidently talk about yourself”. You are not for sale. Anyone who tells you that you are, you should avoid. If you can show someone that you know who you are, if you can assert yourself like that, then people are going to notice you. Confidence stands out.

Ultimately networking not only helps you develop your conversational skills and build a network of like-minded people, but it also leads to the fourth goal of the MAY Movement: Build a community. When pursuing these personal projects, I implore you to reach out to others in our generation. We can help each other and we can help other people. The most important thing to understand about this fourth goal is it’s meant to bring us together as a group—put us all on the same wave length so that we’re in tune enough to knowingly steer American culture. That is our power.

I say this to you: Don’t expect the world to give you what you’re looking for; a lot of the time you have to make it work for you. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. There will always be haters and appreciators. Put that aside. This is our moment. You can choose to commit to it or not. You can choose to do something creative for yourself or not. Embrace your freedom or let it pass? It’s your choice. I choose to embrace it. I will continue to do so here at the Johnsonville Press. And the Johnsonville Press will continue to be a space for the free exchange of ideas, a platform for anyone who chooses to pursue their personal projects in a public setting. We are already a part of the MAY Movement, and I invite you to join us.

More than anything, I implore you, the MAY Generation–my generation–to pursue your passions, to create opportunities for yourself, and to assert yourself in this world. Only then can we take our place in society as the social and cultural powerhouse that we truly are. Finally, you must remember that you are not alone in your pursuits. We all share these struggles. Lean on the people around you. The MAY Movement will be the most successful if we help each other out. For that reason, I am personally available to any of you who need guidance, advice, suggestions, or just someone to bounce ideas off of. Write to me and Iwill write back.[iii] I want to see this happen and I will do everything in my power to see that our generation finds success in the pursuit of our passions. Good luck my friends. I look forward to hearing from you.


[i] Benefits of College Education: 1.http://www.collegetocareers.com/10-benefits-college-education-2/; 2.http://education.yahoo.net/articles/college_degree_benefits.htm;
[ii] Teach for America:http://www.teachforamerica.org/newsroom/documents/PressKit_Overview.pdf;http://www.teachforamerica.org/admissions/;http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/05/28/national/main5046901.shtml
[iii] Please email me at: johnsonvillepress@gmail.com. I sincerely hope to hear from you.

Photo courtesy of davidmusingsthoughts.blogspot.com
(http://davidsmusingsthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/03/generation-y-characteristics.html)

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Negotiating Freedom in an Automotive Economy – Mike Stuzynski

The American Dream, the Automobile, and the Culture of Mass Consumption in On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The idea of freedom has been synonymous with the American Dream since its inception into the popular vernacular as the decisive blueprint for the American cultural experience.  For some, it is the freedom to live life according to their own standards; for others, the idea that hard work will yield future prosperity.  In short, there are nearly as many different definitions for this freedom as there are individual American Dreamers, and no matter what one’s personal idea of freedom may be, the term has long been inextricably bound up in the fabric of American discourse, history, and mythology.

The freedom concept has arrived in the post-modern era as a kind of ambiguous signifier however, having been parroted ad nauseum by generations of ambitious Americans until finally being stripped of any one authoritative meaning.  It is the central idea that links the many individual seekers of this elusive dream together, and yet, it is precisely the multiple and diverse interpretations of the significance of this word freedom that paradoxically sets some of them at odds with the rest of society, and at times, with one another.  Though it resonates with us all, it does so for different and occasionally incongruent reasons; it unites us under a common goal, and simultaneously pulls us apart as evidence of these differing interpretations makes social cohesion, in some instances, undesirable or impossible.

These varying interpretations aside, there is perhaps no better symbol for freedom than the one found in the automobile after the turn of the 20th Century.  The emergence of the motor car struck a chord within Americans, playing upon the desire for personal autonomy via the introduction of a vehicle intended solely for private transportation.  Powerful and tireless, it did not take long for the automobile to be embraced by all Americans as an engine with a fantastic liberating potential.  Life in the automotive age meant that people were free to travel great geographical distances at their leisure, restricted neither by the limited speed and stamina of horses, nor the pre-set destination sites and schedules of passenger trains.  Owning an automobile offered the individual a seemingly limitless potential for autonomy, as it represented the ability for a person to travel, at a whim, as far as the road would take them.   The car became an ideal substitution for the idea of the frontier-space as the Western Territories became more densely populated, and eventually came to be recognized as individual states.

The automobile’s universal American appeal made it an ideal commodity for big business.  It is fitting then that so much of 20th Century American economics has been based off the practices of the automobile industry, most notably the economic principles of Fordism that accompanied the success of the Model T Ford, the first successfully mass produced American automobile.  However, as the sociologist David Gartman pointed out in his essay, “Dialectics of the Labor Process, Consumer Culture, and Class Struggle: The Contradictory Development of the American Automotive Industry,” these were also the same principles that lead to the decline in sales of the more unique automobiles hand produced by skilled workers.  By paying attention to trends in the automobile industry throughout the 20th Century, one can note the paradoxical decline in individuality of product that accompanied the rise of the economics of mass production.

As the automobile became more widely available, the idea that owning one offered the individual a heightened state of freedom also began to evolve.  People who could not afford to buy a car outright were offered the option of an incremental payment plan, which tied them to the greater economy as they were forced to work in order to pay off their purchase.  Other industries were quick to find and exploit their own niches within the burgeoning automobile economy.  The rise of the automobile insurance agency[1] forced car owners to continue to pay a premium for protection long after they have paid off the price of their cars.  There was also the more practical concern of petroleum costs, which rose steadily from the initially low prices in the years following the Second World War as the demand for fuel continued to grow.  All three of these factors helped to bind automobile owners to the general economy, essentially limiting their freedom of movement through economic forces.  Contradictorily to the popularly espoused notion, owning an automobile carried the consequence of limiting the individual’s freedom within the greater social strata by forcing people to work in order to buy and maintain their cars.

In this light, it is interesting to view the automobile within popular culture as a misleading symbol, often falsely lionized as a vehicle of liberation, but with the overarching effect of tying the individual more securely to materialist culture.  This did not stop people from buying into the cultural myth of automotive freedom however, which even found its way into some of the most popular dogma of the American counterculture.  Two excellent literary examples of this can be found in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which offer the reader a seemingly conflicting message about the liberating potential of the automobile.  In both cases, the main characters’ access to cars is the catalyst that enables them to engage in their rebellious adventures.  It is the engine that takes them roaring between various destinations around the country on a whim, or careening around the Las Vegas Strip looking for a good time and a slice of Americana.

But the fact that is most overlooked by readers of these countercultural texts, often overly eager to embrace the positivity of automobile culture that they appear to represent, is that these novels, while inextricably bound to automobile culture, have almost nothing to do with the notion of automobile ownership, which many readers seem to view as a necessary a precondition to automobile access.  Neither Sal Paradise nor any of his cosmopolitan companions owned their own cars, and though Raoul Duke owned a Ford Pinto, it is mentioned only briefly in his novel, and did not play a decisive roll in the text other than functioning as a symbol for some of the failings and shortsightedness of the American automobile industry.

Paradise and Moriarty steal or borrow cars when in need of transportation, often mooching off anyone they meet to pay for fuel, and Duke perpetrates a seemingly endless string of credit card frauds in order to rent his flashy convertibles.  As we will see, the automotive freedom espoused in the works of Kerouac and Thompson is only achieved in direct opposition to the cultural norm of automobile ownership, which far from offering the individual limitless potential for personal freedom, has been socially engineered to ensure their sustained participation in the capitalist American economy driven by the process of continuous consumption.  Kerouac and Thompson show their audience the subversive lengths to which the individual must go in order to negotiate a place for personal autonomy within this oppressive economic superstructure, subtly calling attention to the false promise of freedom that the automotive industry has been implicitly selling to the American consumer, bundled with each flashy new model.

It would be impossible to understand the nuances of Kerouac and Thompson’s rebellion against the false promise of car ownership without a brief investigation into the history of the American automotive industry.  As Gartman explains at the beginning of his essay, “The American automobile industry is a strategic case for exploring the dynamics of production and culture because it helped to pioneer not only the economy of mass production but also the culture of mass consumption that came to legitimate it” (93).  In other words, the industry is unique in American history, as it laid the groundwork both for an automated production standard, and a similarly automated consumer culture, in which consumers are encouraged to spend much of their income on material goods, rather than to save money for the future.  It is precisely this trend of automation, which places strong limits upon personal freedom, against which Kerouac and Thompson are rebelling in their respective novels, the origins of which become clear through an examination of the history of the automobile industry.

It is possible to trace the rise to prominence of the consumer culture to 1913, when the Ford Motor Company introduced the Five Dollar Day program, doubling the daily wages of many assembly line workers in an effort to buy off mounting worker resistance to the perceived dehumanizing process of mass production.  But Ford also worried about the possibility that discontented workers might use their extra wages to support causes that were not in line with his particular business ideals, and so promptly created the Sociological Department as a means of monitoring the spending and cultural habits of his employees.  Sociological Department employees encouraged workers to spend their wages on private or home-based consumption, and discouraged them from living with extended family members or sending excess wages back to relatives in their countries of origin.  According to Gartman, this “offensive was part of the general cultural program of middle-class reformers and corporate capitalists during this period to break up what they perceived as the rowdy and unorganized culture of the working class, which often provided the basis for collective struggles” (97).  It had the overall effect of solidifying the foundation for American consumer culture, illustrating that for Ford and other turn-of-the-century capitalists, the ideal worker was also a model consumer.

The economic practices of the Ford Motor Company in its early stages, popularly known as Fordism, began to set the standards of mainstream culture, as their strongly normative business tendencies can be shown to carry over into the consumer sphere.  Aldous Huxley satirized our cultural obsession with Fordism as early as 1932 in his philosophical novel, Brave New World, in which Ford assumes the position of a religious figure in a fictional world state, with puns on popular phrases like “Our Ford” (32), pervading the novel’s lexicon.  What Huxley saw in the early years of the automotive industry was the strong tendency of capitalists such as Ford to control all aspects of the production process, as well as to dictate the necessity for future consumption.  Huxley shrewdly worked these observations into his futuristic dystopian novel, which continues to resonate in the years following its publication with a startling accuracy.  It is precisely the recurring significance of Huxley’s satire that goes to show just how far the economic philosophy of Fordism has pervaded into everyday American life.

Huxley’s Brave New World paints a grim picture of life within a hyper-evolved, consumer-driven society that limits personal freedoms to the choices predetermined by the governing capitalist elite.  Thankfully, our situation has not yet progressed to such an acute level, despite the novel’s many parallels to modern American society.  The question that was left for individuals after the Second World War was concerned with the problems of negotiating a space for true personal freedom within the confines of a consumer-driven socioeconomic superstructure.  Of course, one could simply reject the structure outright, but that would require the de facto rejection of all the positive goods and services that the consumer society had to offer.  Rejecting the progress offered by the automobile, for example, would not be the best way to achieve real personal autonomy, as this choice is ultimately bound up within the binary system of ownership and non-ownership.  The possibility of this rejection is in actuality circumscribed within the economy’s overall structure, and restricts the individual from enjoying any of the benefits of the industrialized era.  Anyone who wishes to enjoy the fruits of modern society without having to subscribe to the ensnaring process of endless consumption must find an alternate route by which to accomplish this goal.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, shows that there are still avenues of freedom for the individual living under advanced capitalism, so long as he resists the temptation of buying into the consumer-driven economy.  For Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the automobile offered too much potential for them to simply get along without it.  Lucky for them, not only was Moriarty an accomplished car thief-having stolen at least five hundred cars by his own count (224)-but the travel bureau at the time offered free access to a wide range of automobiles, provided they are eventually taken back to their respective owners in various places across the country.  The travel bureau, from which they acquired the “‘fag Plymouth’” (207) and the “‘47 Cadillac limousine” (225), provided the perfect opportunity for individuals to enjoy the liberating benefits of the automobile while circumnavigating the pitfalls of automobile ownership.  Of Paradise and Moriarty, the owner of the Cadillac limousine asked only “for identification and for the car to get [to Chicago]” (225).  They fulfilled their end of the bargain and escaped without incident, despite trashing the limousine in transit and leaving it “a muddy heap” (243) in its owner’s driveway.

The convenience of the travel bureau is two-fold in On the Road. Not only does it offer Paradise and Moriarty free transportation for their adventures, but the semantics of the travel bureau ensure that the pair does not spend too much time with any particular car, as the cars must be returned to their owners upon arrival at their destination.  Though it is not immediately obvious, it is Paradise and Moriarty’s ability to use various cars interchangeably, rather than being tied to any one car in particular that contributes to the degree of autonomy they are able to enjoy throughout the novel.  Their ability to treat the car as a disposable commodity is what enables them to enjoy their freedom, as they don’t have to worry about working jobs to make car, gas, and insurance payments.  In their situation, they don’t even have to worry about destroying the cars that take them across the continent, because the cars don’t actually belong to them.  At times, their adventure takes such a toll on their vehicle that it completely breaks down.  When Dean left Sal in Mexico City, he “pushed that old car all the way to Lake Charles, Louisiana, before the rear end finally dropped on the road as he had always known it would” (303).  No matter, Dean will simply steal another one or stroll into a travel bureau office and fill out a fresh application.

If confined to a single car, Moriarty’s rambunctious style of driving would eventually lead to the machine’s destruction due to the stress of continual cross country driving.  In the case of the Cadillac, the speedometer broke off two miles outside of Denver because of his need for excessive speed, and the car itself arrived in Chicago in such bad condition that the owner’s mechanic “did not recognize the Cadillac” (243).  It is a safe assumption that Paradise and Moriarty would never have driven the Cadillac limousine as recklessly as they did if either of them had actually owned the car.  In a consumer-driven economy, where individual status is largely based upon the condition and quantity of one’s belongings, it is not surprising that people would feel freer using possessions that do not personally belong to them.  Other people’s cars are viewed by Paradise and Moriarty simply as disposable vehicles that can be used vicariously to enhance their individual enjoyment.

Moriarty and Paradise also use other people’s automobiles as a catalyst to launch vicarious conversations about the future, as is most evident in the case of the Cadillac limousine.  While zooming through Nebraska en route to Chicago, Dean engages Sal in a whimsical aside:

Think if you and I had a car like this what we could do.  Do you know there’s a road that goes down Mexico and all the way to Panama?-and maybe all the way to the bottom of South America where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside?  Yes!  You and I, Sal, we’d dig the whole world with a car like this because, man, the road must eventually lead to the whole world.  Ain’t nowhere else it can go-right?  Oh, and are we going to cut around old Chi with this thing! (231).

Because the two are so detached from the mechanisms of the consumer-driven economy, they take this opportunity to speculate listlessly about the possibilities that would accompany ownership of such a fine automobile.  However, never in the entire novel do Dean or Sal ever seriously lay plans to buy a car of their own-”a dreamboat”-as Dean affectionately dubs the Cadillac, which would effectively limit their potential to embark upon future adventures, tying them to one singular vehicle, and by extension, the plans that had specifically formed around it.

From reading the above passage, the reader is stricken with the feeling that it is not so much the car itself that Dean and Sal value, but its utility for fantasy and speculation.  The reader cannot take Dean’s Mexican proposal seriously, as the limousine had already begun to show signs of wear and tear upon leaving Denver, indicating that it probably would not be suited for such an arduous drive.  His reference to the Indians who grow seven feet tall is also better understood as dramatic hyperbole, the product of a picaresque fantasy that is perhaps as valuable and liberating as the physical journey itself.  The two are able to explore the full limits of their imagination in addition to the national landscape, inventing their own adventures in the realm of fantasy to compliment or color their lived experiences.

Paradise adds to the process of speculation, exclaiming, “We’ll come in there like gangsters in this Cadillac!” (231), invoking the countercultural identity of the Mafioso as folk hero.  It does not appear as if either of them takes this comparison literally, but in their desire to live and experience all aspects of American life, it is a new and attractive association to contemplate.  Their status and sense of self become elated merely by association with the high society symbol of the Cadillac.  They cannot help but wonder what life must be like for people with enough wealth to enable them to afford such luxury items.  It is the newness of the experience of riding in the Cadillac that is of real value to them, as neither one of them has ever been given access to a vehicle of its caliber.  It is a novelty that offers a future of endless possibilities, but they are possibilities that only exist within the realm of fantasy, and will inevitably be abandoned as the pair trade in their current vehicle for a new one, only to begin this process of adventure and speculation anew.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke’s quest for the American Dream takes him down many of the same avenues traveled by Paradise and Moriarty in On the Road, and he is also seen to treat the automobile as a disposable commodity along his journeys.  Through the course of the novel, Duke rents two wildly extravagant convertibles under false credentials and destroys them before returning them to the rental agencies.  Duke treats these two rentals-a huge Chevrolet convertible (3) and an equally large Cadillac Coup de Ville convertible (104)-with a reverence that is in some ways similar to Paradise and Moriarty’s veneration for their dream boat, but with a greater sense of maturity and nuance.  The central difference lays in his ubiquitous awareness of the symbolic potential of the vehicles in which he rides, which in turn causes him to be more conscientious about the cars that he chooses to rent.  Unlike Paradise and Moriarty, for Raoul Duke, not just any car will do.  It is his distinct inclination to favor the flashier American muscle and luxury cars, symbolic of his nostalgia for the 1960’s and the age of the classic American automobile, that sets him apart, and offers the reader a more critical perspective about the symbolic potential of the automobile in general.  It is this overt attention paid to the physical appearances of his vehicle that best serve to distance Duke from the less meticulous characters in On the Road, who are content to drive around in anything, so long as it has four wheels, a steering column, and gas in the tank.

In fact, there are parts of the novel that can be interpreted without too much extrapolation as being in direct critical conversation with the naïve, youthful values portrayed in On the Road, most notably Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s interaction with the adolescent Okie hitchhiker they pick up en route to Las Vegas in the opening chapter.  The innocence of the hitchhiker, who is completely ignorant of the lifestyle embraced by Duke and Gonzo, is comparable to the inexperienced youthfulness of Sal Paradise, who can not fully appreciate the importance of the symbolic power of sports cars as Duke can.  Duke’s obsession with the physical appearance of the Chevrolet illustrates his understanding of the automobile as a status symbol in addition to an engine of transportation, reflected by his conversation with the Okie hitchhiker, with whom he is desperately trying to relate.  ”We’re on our way to Las Vegas to find the American Dream,” he explains.  “That’s why we rented this car.  It was the only way to do it.  Can you grasp that?” (6).  The hitchhiker is unable to understand the significance of the Chevrolet, although he smiles and nods politely in agreement with Duke’s ramblings.

Duke takes pity on the hitchhiker, and continues to converse with him about the importance of the fireapple-red convertible, and other aspects of his lifestyle.  But the hitchhiker is completely incapable of relating to Duke in conversation.  The two are of entirely different breeds; the hitchhiker is merely trying to get from point A to B as quickly and cheaply as possible, while Duke shows more concern with stylistic elements and a greater capacity for indulgence in more subversive activities.  The Okie refuses the beer that is presented to him, and doesn’t even know what to make of the ether that Duke offers.  Duke realizes his inability to relate to the hitchhiker, but does not treat him with disdain, instead taking pity on him for his ignorance and naivety.  He seemingly expresses a yearning to share the meaningfulness of his experience with the hitchhiker, as evidenced in the following selection:

Here’s this poor geek living in a world of convertibles zipping past him on the highways all the time, and he’s never even ridden in one.  …  I was tempted to have my attorney pull into the next airport and arrange some kind of simple, common-law contract whereby we could just give the car to this unfortunate bastard.  Just say: ‘Here, sign this and the car’s yours.’ …  But this manic notion passed quickly (17).

Duke’s desire to enlighten the hitchhiker can best be understood as a literary conversation with Sal Paradise, caricaturized by the hitchhiker, on whom he eventually realizes the experience of driving such a superior automobile would be wasted.  He wants to share his way of life with the naïve Okie, because he can sympathize with his position on some level, but soon realizes that the two of them are from different worlds.  Hunter Thompson the author seems to be torn in his feelings about the hitchhiker, and uses Duke and Dr. Gonzo as foils in this case to make an interesting critical point.  On the one hand, Duke seems genuinely sorry that he could not enlighten the “unfortunate bastard,” who bails out of the car at his earliest convenience, but Dr. Gonzo is not as sympathetic, seemingly reflecting Thompson’s authorial criticism of the naivety that is omnipresent throughout On the Road.  “That poor fool should have stayed where he was,” he remarks.  “Punks like that just get in the way when they try to be serious” (21).

From this exchange, the reader understands that Fear and Loathing is not simply concerned with mimicking Kerouac’s journey for the American Dream, but is attempting to build upon its literary tradition by coloring the experience of life on the road with greater nuance.  From the onset, Duke’s appreciation for superior automotive technology is clearly recognizable.  Before heading to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400, he remarks that he “already had one car, but it was far too small and slow for desert work” (12)  Obtaining the proper automobile is an essential prerequisite to his being able to cover the story properly, and his refusal to compromise in this search illustrates the central importance the car will play in his job performance.  He explains that his “attorney made seventeen calls before locating a convertible with adequate horsepower and proper coloring” (12), indicating that it is not only muscle he is looking for in his vehicle, but style as well.  The attorney’s tenacity in tracking down the proper car further reinforces the significance of its role in their journey.

The pair categorically refuse to use Duke’s own car-a Ford Pinto-on their trip to Las Vegas.  The importance of the Ford Pinto in the novel as symbolic of the waning days of Detroit’s dominance of the domestic automobile market cannot be ignored, and for this reason, it is of extreme significance that Duke and Gonzo should discard it so readily.  According to Brock Yates’ book, The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry, the Ford Pinto, introduced to the market in 1971, was designed and built singularly to “eradicate the nuisance” (116) of foreign-made subcompact cars that were slowly beginning to chip away at Detroit’s stronghold on the domestic market.  According to Yates, it was intentionally designed poorly, in an attempt to deter consumers from favoring smaller vehicles rather than the “larger, more profitable, more normalautomobiles” (118, emphasis added).  It is the author’s position that the Pinto was part of a greater Detroit agenda to chip away at the foreign influence on the American market, and was not intended to supplant the flashier, larger models, which represented a greater potential for profit that Detroit had been producing with gusto since the 1950’s.  He quotes the following from a Ford engineer: “The Pinto could have been a better automobile in many ways, but to have made it better might have permitted it to intrude into areas of the market where it wasn’t supposed to be” (117).

With this in mind, Duke’s rejection of the Pinto in favor of the Chevrolet convertible reflects his nostalgic desire to return to the glory days of the American automobile, if only in the timeframe of this brief, imaginative, and picaresque journey.  It might also be characterized as his personal rejection of the small-mindedness and selfish thinking that provided the catalyst for the Pinto’s introduction to the market.  However, it is important to note that this rejection does not deter him from buying a Pinto for his own everyday use, reflecting his understanding of its utilitarian value as well as his loyalty to American automobile manufacturers.  The Pinto’s economic worth aside, he rightly makes the connection that it has no place in his more focused quest to find the American Dream, as it is symbolizes the end of the era of the American muscle car, and all of the cultural mythologies these vehicles have come to symbolize.

The scene in which Duke rents the Cadillac Coup de Ville further emphasizes his loyalty to Detroit’s tried and true automobiles, even as foreign producers begin to offer viable competition.  When offered a luxury Mercedes 600 Town-Cruiser Special at the rental agency, Duke responds vehemently to the idea that he would be caught dead driving an import car.  “Do I look like a goddamn Nazi?” he asks.  “I’ll have a natural American car, or nothing at all!” (104).  It is his continued insistence on driving the absolute top-of-the line automobiles that Detroit has to offer that solidifies Duke in the position of a classic American Dreamer.  No assembly-line produced, boxy Fords for this seeker-nothing but the flashiest, biggest, and sportiest American automobiles will suffice.  They are indicative of high status and individuality, both of which are essential prerequisites to Duke’s decadent vision, and represent his distinctive loyalty to the American industry, despite its shortcomings in recent years.  This insistence is symbolic of the distinguishing American characteristic of Thompson’s novel.

However, as was the case for Paradise and Moriarty in On the Road, Duke and Dr. Gonzo are free to enjoy the endless possibilities offered by their exotic automobiles precisely because they are not their own personal property, rejecting the cultural myth that automobile ownership provides the individual with the path to true personal autonomy.  Instead, all four characters are able to enjoy a wide array of different cars, which they exploit to their fullest potential and then discard once they have outlasted their usefulness.  It is only through their access to an endless supply of disposable automobiles that they are able to truly fulfill their quests to find the American Dream, which is itself bound up in the idea of conspicuous mass consumption.  Because of this, they are able to push these machines to the full extent of their capacity, without having to worry about paying for repairs, fuel, or insurance, as would be the case if they used their own cars.  Due to their lack of personal economic attachment to these borrowed vehicles, they are able to extract the maximum levels of enjoyment from this distinctly American Dream.

Bibliography

Chinoy, Ely.  Automobile Workers and the American Dream. Urbana: University of

Illinois Press, 1992.   (This source is a sociological study concerning automobile workers in the 1940s.  It discusses the ways in which they are “tricked” into believing that a manufacturing job will offer them social mobility.  It was extremely interesting to me, but was not of great use for my paper, aside from providing a few general insights.)

Gartman, David.  Auto Slavery: The Labor Process in the American Automobile Industry,

1897-1950. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.  (Gartman takes a look at the Automobile industry through a Marxist lens, analyzing the ways in which Detroit automobile manufacturing plants contributed to the dehumanization of labor in America.)

–,–.  “Dialectics of the Labor Process, Consumer Culture, and Class Struggle: The

Contradictory Development of the American Automobile Industry.”  Rethinking

the Labor Process. Ed. Mark Wardell, Thomas L. Steiger, and Peter Meiksins.

New York: State University Press, 1999.  pp 79-92.  (This source builds on Gartman’s essay, but delves into the ways in which the American Automobile industry helped create the culture of mass consumerism to compliment its industrial practice of mass production.)

Huxley, Aldous.  Brave New World. New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1998.  (This

satirical, dystopian work provides a literary precedent for the intrusion of Fordist economic principles into the general social strata.)

Kerouac, Jack.  On the Road. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1976.

Thompson, Hunter S.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Randomhouse,

1998.

Wik, Reynold M.  Henry Ford and Grass-roots America. Ann Arbor: University of

Michigan Press, 1972.  (This source was generally not useful, as it was mostly concerned with Henry Ford’s status as a folk hero and was not overly critical of many of his more controversial ideas.  At first I thought viewing Ford as a folk hero could be interesting as a connection to the fantasy elements present in On the Road and Fear and Loathing, but this did not flesh out.)

Yates, Brock.  The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry. New York:

Empire Books, 1983.  (Yates’ book provided historical background for my discussion of the Ford Pinto.  It also recaps some of the more general information about the American Automobile Industry found in other sources.)


[1] Massachusetts became the first state to require compulsory automobile insurance for all drivers in 1927, according to the following source:

 Sharon Tennyson, Mary A. Weiss, & Laureen Regan, “Automobile Insurance Regulation, The Massachusetts Experience.”  Viewed on 4/26/08 at  http://aei-rookings.org/admin/authorpdfs/redirect-safely.php?fname=../pdffiles/Chapter2.pdf.

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