Car Country

An Environmental History

Christopher W. Wells
Foreword by William Cronon

  • Published: 2013. Paperback 2014
  • Subject Listing: History / Environmental History; Environmental Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 464 pp., 61 illus., 7 maps, 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
  • Contents

For most people in the United States, going almost anywhere begins with reaching for the car keys. This is true, Christopher Wells argues, because the United States is Car Country-a nation dominated by landscapes that are difficult, inconvenient, and often unsafe to navigate by those who are not sitting behind the wheel of a car.

The prevalence of car-dependent landscapes seems perfectly natural to us today, but it is, in fact, a relatively new historical development. In Car Country, Wells rejects the idea that the nation's automotive status quo can be explained as a simple byproduct of an ardent love affair with the automobile. Instead, he takes readers on a tour of the evolving American landscape, charting the ways that transportation policies and land-use practices have combined to reshape nearly every element of the built environment around the easy movement of automobiles. Wells untangles the complicated relationships between automobiles and the environment, allowing readers to see the everyday world in a completely new way. The result is a history that is essential for understanding American transportation and land-use issues today.

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Christopher W. Wells is associate professor of environmental history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"Car Country is arguably the most carefully researched, clearly written, and consistently engaging study anyone has yet written exploring the far-flung and extraordinarily complicated landscapes created by and for automobiles in the twentieth-century United States. The story is all the more remarkable because most of us who now inhabit this landscape take it so much for granted without having the slightest clue how it came into being."
-William Cronon, from the Foreword

"Car Country offers a valuable historical perspective that is directly related to many pressing contemporary issues."
-Owen D. Gutfreund, author of Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

Foreword by William Cronon
Prologue: A Car of One's Own

Part One Before the Automobile, 1880-1905
1. Roads and Reformers

Part Two Dawn of the Motor Age, 1895-1919
2. Automotive Pioneers
3. Building for Traffic
Photo Gallery One

Part Three Creating Car Country, 1919-1941
4. Motor-Age Geography
5. Fueling the Boom
6. The Paths Out of Town
Photo Gallery Two

Part Four New Patterns, New Standards, New Landscapes, 1940-1960
7. Suburban Nation

Epilogue Reaching for the Car Keys
Selected Bibliography

"One of the great strengths of the book is Wells's meticulous work in revealing how the institutional, economic, and mental arrangements supporting 'Car Country' were set in place during the interwar years. . . . Wells's book is a remarkable achievement."
-Theodore Strathman, Southern California Quarterly

"For students and inhabitants of car country, Wells offers a terrific excavation of the sprawlscape that still drives our days."
-Human Ecology

"A fresh, well-documented history of roadbuilding policies in the United States between 1900 and 1960."
-James M. Rubenstein, Journal of American History

"Relatively few academic geographers have focused their research and publishing directly on the automobile and its geographical implications for life in the United States. Yet nothing over the past century has had a greater effect on America's geography than the public's evolving dependence on the motor car, and, as well, the motor truck. . . . Christopher Wells's opus will excite more geographers to focus on automobility as a fundamental factor underlying the American experience."
-John A. Jackle, The AAG Review of Books

"In Car Country, Christopher W. Wells offers a compelling history of America's signature car-dependent landscapes. With lively anecdotes, effective imagery, and dozens of illustrations, the book also presents an accessible narrative that will help students visualize how Americans gradually and profoundly transformed their nation."
-Michael R. Fine, American Historical Review

"Wells has produced an important and persuasive new chapter in the history of American car culture."
-David Blanke, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"[Car Country] is an excellent and needed addition to the still remarkably small literature that explores the combined histories of Americans, automobiles, and the environment."
-Tom McCarthy, The Michigan Historical Review

"Wells argues that in order to understand how automobility has become so deeply 'locked in' to contemporary American society, historians and geographers would do better to focus on the built landscape . . . [Car Country] belongs in the library of anyone interested in transportation, infrastructure, mobility, and land-use in twentieth-century America."
-Ben Bradley, Journal of Historical Geography

"Wells has produced an important and persuasive new chapter in the history of American car culture."
-David Blanke, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"[I]maginative and accessible. . . . General US historians should pay attention to Car Country. It joins a growing body of environmental history that is revising the traditional narrative of US history."
-Janet Ore, H-Environment