The Problem of the Road
: The Road and the Street in the Twentieth Century American Road Novel

  • Joel David Roberts

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis offers a historiography of the twentieth century American road novel, arguing that it consistently presents the road as a problem of governmental order. Road narrative scholarship to date has read the twentieth century American road
    novel as an extension of the frontier narrative. In contrast to this, I analyse novels by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Delany, Gerald Vizenor, and Leslie Marmon Silko to argue that they both participate in and resist the orderly discourse of the road through three key phases: city planning, urban crisis, and the Oil Crisis. Relatedly, I suggest that these authors also identify that the order of the road is imposed upon black communities in America. In these texts, the road narrative’s assertion of order is made upon the black life of the street – of gathering together and of the riot.

    I trace the historical destruction of street life by the development of the road in these texts, arguing that the Great Migration formed the life of the streets upon which the order of the automobile and its road was asserted, as the discourse of the road developed in the early twentieth century as a component of city planning. This, I suggest, can be illuminated via a reading of Hammett, Chandler, Himes, Wright, Petry, and Ellison. I then argue that the rebellions of the 1960s occasioned the emergence of a discourse of the road as productive of ‘urban crisis’, as well as representing a return of street life, as charted by Pynchon. Finally, I argue that Delany, Vizenor, and Sliko suggest that the life of the street could return again with the breakdown of the order of the road during the 1973-1974 Oil Crisis.

    I also argue that the destruction of the street operated at a metaphysical level. Drawing on the work of Denise Ferreira da Silva, I suggest that the order of the road is that of the self-determining subjectivity of the driver – the subject that possesses things and can act upon and navigate the world in a predictable, knowable way. By contrast, the street is a space of what da Silva terms affectability; it is a space where people are acted upon and affect one another, producing a life that is collective, unowned. Accordingly, I also trace the ways that these novels preserve the affectable life of the street via their deployment of sonic metaphors and practices to describe this space. Here, my project contributes to work in Black Studies, such as Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: Racialising Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (2014), which seeks to theorise resistance in ways not dependent on a self-possessive, agentic subject.
    Date of Award2019
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorJohn Wrighton (Supervisor)


    • road novels
    • road narratives
    • Black Studies
    • American Studies
    • Fred Moten
    • Denise Ferreira da Silva

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