By the Way: Research on the Roadside

Elsa Court image

It was not always clear why I, a non-driver in my late twenties, had chosen to research the road and its architectural landscape. My PhD studied representations of the American roadside and its commercial structures – the motel, the gas station, the highway service area in its various denominations, the roadside café, the toilet cubicle, and, occasionally, the roadside sign – as global icons of modern America. This liminal spot between land and road, capitalised upon to ease the fluidity of motorised motion, seemed especially meaningful in the American landscape, where the land is vast and roads cut through desert and empty prairies.

The roadside as space spoke to my sense of the road as a passive traveller and reader of literature. As a representational space, I thought, the roadside is often paradoxically a dead-end: an embodiment of indirection and loss.

Over the years I gathered an enormous amount of references to roadsides in fiction and movies, mostly American. I couldn’t write a thesis in which I addressed them all, so my focus eventually settled on the émigré perspective on the American landscape and, simultaneously, on America’s postwar craze for road-trips. Pitching European-born writers and artists against postwar chief-of-the-American-road Jack Kerouac, I noticed that the roadside was more prominent in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Wim Wenders, or the photographs of Robert Frank than in all the writings of the Beat generation put together. It became my slightly ambitious contention to say that Kerouac had not actually seen the physical road: more like, the idea of the road as space, which he dreamed from the inside of a speeding car.

I am lucky that I have many friends who can drive and are willing to travel. In the summer of 2014 I took three little road trips myself: one in Texas, one from New England to Montreal, and the last one in Oregon through to Washington. I stayed in motels and met some people on the road who were always eager to chat. I had to disclose my little PhD story, over and over. I was often told that my accent was hard to place. Its because I am an émigré myself, having moved to England from France in my early twenties. How interesting, people would say: they could not always tell I was French, but it was clear that I had spent a lot of time in London.

Perhaps the narrowing of my research to émigrés on the road did not happen accidentally: it did not happen consciously, though, as I remember it. It just appeared to me, at one point, that the most significant roadside imaginings, the ones most useful for what I wanted to say, were the records of writers and artists transiting America. Journeys where the mundane and the everyday are made surreal by the experience of dislocation. I know this happens a lot with all research: topics have a way of finding you before you know what you’re really aiming at.

Elsa Court has recently completed her PhD on Representations of the American Roadside in Émigré Fiction, Film and Photography post-1945 at UCL. She lives and works in London. She tweets transatlantic and multidisciplinary musings @ElsaCourt

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