Style & Culture

Ray Deitrich

Tue Jun 11 2013 00:38:26 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

“American roads have created perpetual motion, an automotive perpetuum mobile.”

That statement may not seem at all startling to you. At least not until you learn that it was written not last week but way back in 1935, decades before the Interstate highways paved the way through and around cities and from coast to coast and border to border -- and seemingly across much of the area in between.

The words were written by two writers from the Soviet Union who spent two months driving from coast to coast and back again in a Ford sedan they bought just for the trip. The writers were Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, and they were accompanied on the route by a retired engineer who had moved from Latvia to the United States and by the engineer’s American-born but Russian-speaking wife. It is the wife who is believed to have actually been the one who did the driving, first from New York to San Francisco by way of Chicago, Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain’s hometown), Kansas City, the Texas panhandle and the Grand Canyon, and then from San Francisco down the California coast to Los Angeles and back through El Paso, the Gulf Coast and up the Atlantic seaboard to New York, where they caught to ship back to Europe and Mother Russia.

Oh, and frequently there was a fifth person in the Ford as they picked up a succession of hitchhikers.

Upon returning to the Soviet Union, the tandem published a series of 12 magazine articles about the trip. Decades later, those articles were reprinted, along with photos they took as they traveled, in Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers, published in 2007 by Cabinet Books and the Princeton Architectural Press.

Though they were hugely popular in their native country, I’d never heard of the writers or their American road trip until a long-time and now Facebook friend recently posted his delight in rediscovering his copy of the book. Curious, I went to and found a copy for myself.

If you’re read much of what I’ve written, you know I like road trips -- doing them and reading about them. I was an eager passenger to ride along with Ilf and Petrov and to see my country through they’re eyes, and words, and to see what had changed and what had not.

Here’s one thing that had changed: “The great American service...” (Their italics, not mine.)

“...without ever leaving his car, the traveler can get the necessary quantity of gasoline at the gas stations that line American highways by the thousands,” we read

"The tank has been filled. The traveler can now go confidently on his way. However, the gentleman in the striped cap and leather bow-tie doesn’t let him go. The great American service begins. The man from the gas station lifts the car’s hood and checks the oil and water levels... Then the air pressure in the tires... cleans the car windshield...”

And, they note, all this service is provided for free. (Again, their italics.)

But now, in this more progressive and advanced age, we have self-service, well, except for New Jersey and Oregon, and I was just in New Jersey and while state law requires a service station employee to pump your gas, the one who pumped mine showed no inclination to cleaning the windshield, let alone checking oil and water levels or tire pressures. But sometimes change is progressive. For example, no longer do we, like Ilf and Petrov, have to add a quart of oil every 1,000 miles we drive.

What were some other things that impressed the tourists? Well, what they termed the “nauseating” fact that one movie star earned more than ten top American scientists; that we had “the most advanced technology in the world and a horrifyingly oppressive, stupefying social order” that didn’t seem at all bothered by “shameful” poverty’ that while there was no longer slavery in America, neither was there equality of races; and that in America, “it doesn’t matter how you make your money, as long as you make some.”

They were appalled by the omnipresence of advertising: “An American doesn’t have to think about anything,” they wrote. “Big business thinks for him.” And when Americans do think, they learned, they tend to think primarily, if not only, about themselves: Hitchhikers they picked up, they wrote, were “talkative, self-assured, and incurious,” quite happy to talk only about themselves while never asking about “who we were.”

And yet there was an American trait they envied, even though they were here during the depths of the Depression. That trait -- the American spirit of optimism.

“Just thinking about the general state of affairs in the United States is enough to make you fall into a deep melancholy,” the visitors wrote, but the American sees “no dark cloud in his consciousness. Quite the opposite: he’s completely free from any shadow of worry... he’ll get by somehow.”

But I wonder: Would the visitors see the same spirit of optimism today?

-- Larry Edsall