Cars From the Canon: Ellison, Huxley, Irving

Great modern writers wielding automotive imagery.

byMax Prince|
Cars From the Canon: Ellison, Huxley, Irving

For thousands of years, it was the ship. Ships brought men to the Troad and Charles Marlow through the Congo. Ships bore whaling folly and marooned Lemuel Gulliver. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, there was the automobile.

The advent of cars gave writers a new tool, this great powerful thing for metaphors and rhetoric and setting. A symbol of strength and beauty, mobility and stagnation, wealth and poverty, hope and despair; a machine that warps time and kills en masse. The best writers wielded automotive imagery with a sense of purpose.

So here we pay homage to those authors, and the vehicles that inspired them, by excerpting short passages from the modern canon. Maybe it’s a description of a car, a humorous observation, or some wonderful dialogue on the highway. Maybe it’s an allegory. Maybe it’s uncategorizable. Either way, the choice to include an automobile in the story was intentional. And we should celebrate that.


From Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison:

The wheel felt like an alien thing in my hands as I followed the white line of the highway. Heat rays from the late afternoon sun arose from the gray concrete, shimmering like the weary tones of a distant bugle blown upon still midnight air. In the mirror I could see Mr. Norton staring out vacantly upon the empty fields, his mouth stern, his white forehead livid where it had scraped the screen. And seeing him I felt the fear balled coldly within me unfold. What would happen now? What would the school officials say? In my mind I visualized Dr. Bledsoe's face when he saw Mr. Norton. I thought of the glee certain folks at home would feel if I were expelled. Tatlock's grinning face danced through my mind. What would the white folks think who'd sent me to college? Was Mr. Norton angry at me? In the Golden Day he had seemed more curious than anything else—until the vet had started talking wild. Damn Trueblood. It was his fault. If we hadn't sat in the sun so long Mr. Norton would not have needed whiskey and I wouldn't have gone to the Golden Day. And why would the vets act that way with a white man in the house?

I headed the car through the red-brick campus gateposts with a sense of cold apprehension. Now even the rows of neat dormitories seemed to threaten me, the rolling lawns appearing as hostile as the gray highway with its white dividing line. As of its own compulsion, the car slowed as we passed the chapel with its low, sweeping eaves. The sun shone coolly through the avenue of trees, dappling the curving drive. Students strolled through the shade, down a hill of tender grass toward the brick-red stretch of tennis courts. Far beyond, players in whites showed sharp against the red of the courts surrounded by grass, a gay vista washed by the sun. In the brief interval I heard a cheer arise. My predicament struck me like a stab. I had a sense of losing control of the car and slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road, then apologized and drove on. Here within this quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known, and I was losing it. In this brief moment of passage I became aware of the connection between these lawns and buildings and my hopes and dreams. I wanted to stop the car and talk with Mr. Norton, to beg his pardon for what he had seen; to plead and show him tears, unashamed tears like those of a child before his parent; to denounce all we'd seen and heard; to assure him that far from being like any of the people we had seen, I hated them, that I believed in the principles of the Founder with all my heart and soul, and that I believed in his own goodness and kindness in extending the hand of his benevolence to helping us poor, ignorant people out of the mire and darkness. I would do his bidding and teach others to rise up as he wished them to, teach them to be thrifty, decent, upright citizens, contributing to the welfare of all, shunning all but the straight and narrow path that he and the Founder had stretched before us. If only he were not angry with me! If only he would give me another chance!

Tears filled my eyes, and the walks and buildings flowed and froze for a moment in mist, glittering as in winter when rain froze on the grass and foliage and turned the campus into a world of whiteness, weighting and bending both trees and bushes with fruit of crystal. Then in the twinkling of my eyes, it was gone, and the here and now of heat and greenness returned. If only I could make Mr. Norton understand what the school meant to me.

From Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

“Stability,” said the Controller, “stability. No civilization without social stability. No social stability without industrial stability.” His voice was a trumped. Listening they felt larger, warmer.

The machine turns, turns and keeps turning—for ever. It is death if it stands still. A thousand millions scrabbled the crust of the earth. The wheels began to turn. In a hundred and fifty years there were two thousand millions. Stop all the wheels. In a hundred and fifty weeks there are once more only a thousand millions; a thousand thousand thousand men and women have starved to death.

Wheels must turn steadily, but cannot go untended. There must be men to tend them, men as steady as the wheels upon their axles, sane men, obedient men, stable in contentment.

From A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving:

For example: in the summer of ’58 when we were both sixteen, Owen got his driver's license before I got mine—not only because he was a month older, but because he already knew how to drive. He'd taught himself with his father's various trucks—he'd been driving on those steep, loopy roads that ran around the quarries that pockmarked most of Maiden Hill.

He took his driver's test on the day of his sixteenth birthday, using his father's tomato-red pickup truck; in those days, there was no driver education course in New Hampshire, and you took your test with a local policeman in the passenger seat—the policeman told you where to turn, when to stop or back up or park. The policeman, in Owen's case, was Chief Ben Pike himself; Chief Pike expressed concern regarding whether or not Owen could reach the pedals-or see over the steering wheel. But Owen had anticipated this: he was mechanically inclined, and he'd raised the seat of the pickup so high that Chief Pike hit his head on the roof; Owen had slid the seat so far forward that Chief Pike had considerable difficulty cramming his knees under the

Dashboard—in fact, Chief Pike was so physically uncomfortable in the cab of the pickup that he cut Owen's test fairly short.

"HE DIDN'T EVEN MAKE ME PARALLEL-PARK!" Owen said; he was disappointed that he was denied the opportunity to show off his parallel-parking abilities—Owen Meany could slip that tomato-red pickup into a parking space that would have been challenging for a Volkswagen Beetle. In retrospect, I'm surprised that Chief Pike didn't search the interior of the pickup for that "instrument of death" he was always looking for.

Dan Needham taught me to drive; it was the summer Dan directed Julius Caesar in the Gravesend Academy summer school, and he would take me for lessons every morning before rehearsals. Dan would drive me out the Swasey Parkway and up Maiden Hill. I practiced on the back roads around the quarries—the roads on which Owen Meany learned to drive were good enough for me; and Dan judged it safer for me off the public highways, although the Meany Granite Company vehicles flew around those roads with reckless abandon.

The quarrymen were fearless drivers and they trucked the granite and their machinery at full throttle; but, in the summer, the trucks raised so much dust that Dan and I had warning when one was coming—I always had time to pull over, while Dan recited his favorite Shakespeare from Julius Caesar.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Whereupon, Dan would grip the dashboard and tremble while a dynamite truck hurtled past us.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me the most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

Owen, too, was fond of that passage. When we saw Dan's production of Julius Caesar, later that summer, I had passed my driver's test; yet, in the evenings, when Owen and I would drive down to the boardwalk and the casino at Hampton Beach together, we took the tomato-red pickup and Owen always drove. I paid for the gas. Those summer nights of 1958 were the first nights I remember feeling "grown up"; we'd drive half an hour from Gravesend for the fleeting privilege of inching along a crowded, gaudy strip of beachfront, looking at girls who rarely looked at us. Sometimes, they looked at the truck. We could drive along this strip only two or three times before a cop would motion us over to the side of the street, examine Owen's driver's license—in disbelief—and then suggest that we find a place to park the truck and resume our looking at girls on foot, on either the boardwalk or on the sidewalk that threaded the arcades.

Walking with Owen Meany at Hampton Beach was ill-advised; he was so strikingly small, he was teased and roughed up by the delinquent young men who tilted the pinball machines and swaggered in the heated vicinity of the girls in their cotton-candy-colored clothes. And the girls, who rarely returned our glances when we were secure in the Meany Granite Company pickup, took very long (and giggling) looks at Owen when we were on foot. When he was walking, Owen didn't dare look at the girls.