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A Route of Her Own: Women’s Road Narratives in the Library of Congress

Two women in a red convertible speed along the Florida Keys, Look Magazine, January 1954. Photographer: Ed Fisher. Photo of transparency by Catherine Morgan-Proux. The transparency is stored offsite in special cold storage facilities.

This is a guest post by Catherine Morgan-Proux, a French Association of American Studies (AEFA) Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center, from the Université Clermont Auvergne. She is working on a project titled “The Road She Travelled: 20th Century Cultural Representations of Women on the Road.” Morgan-Proux’s work is done as part of The Centre de Recherches sur les Littératures et la Sociopoétique, a research team that focuses on the dynamic interaction between social practices and literary representations.

Jack Kerouac, the author of On The Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958), gave birth to a generation of writers and travelers inspired by his freewheeling spirit. But few people are aware that he was also the biological father to Jan Kerouac, a talented writer in her own right. Her published works are highly autobiographical, and trace her insatiable appetite to be on the move with perceptiveness and poetry.

“Adventure twitched in my feet,” Jan Kerouac says in Baby Driver, a Story About Myself, which was published in 1981 but is no longer in print. Jan writes about her experience taking the wheel, with a zest for travel she seems to have inherited from her famous father. Yet her voice is very much her own.

Jan’s personal life was a troubled one. According to Gerald Nicosia, her biographer, she only met her father on a handful of occasions – her parents parted before she was born – and her writing is infused with a longing to fill this absence. She died young, aged only 44, but she left us with some mesmerizing texts that capture a passion for the open road. She describes, for example, the joy of sharing a heady few days on the highway with her best buddy, as the “raunchy delight of careless car existence.”

The pace flows full tilt as she shares her adventures and her addictions, her intense capacity to love, as well as her failed relationships, always with honesty and tremendous humor. Her other books, Trainsong (1998) and Parrot Fever (published posthumously in 2000), are also, sadly, out of print today. But I was able to access them anyway and examine the rare scholarly attention that her work has received thanks to the Library of Congress’s extensive holdings.

It is a thrill to be studying in the United States, the country that essentially invented road narratives, road culture, and how we imagine the highway. My ambition is to extend those narratives to include women’s travel stories and perspectives.

Jan Kerouac’s story is just one road narrative out of many that I have been learning about at the Library of Congress.

In addition to reading about Jan Kerouac, I have been working with the Farm Security Administration collection, which includes the work of Marion Post Wolcott and Esther Bubley, who brought such humanity to their series of photographs of roads, highways and portraits of American people on the move.

It has been fascinating to immerse myself in the Look Magazine collection’s representations of women on the road. The photograph above, of two women in a red convertible speeding along the Florida Keys, is from a travel article in Look Magazine from January 1954.

I have also been exploring the rich photography of Carol Highsmith, and in particular her aesthetic of the road, present in the immense collection she donated to the Library of Congress. Her series of photos of roadside art and gas stations is incredibly evocative.

In the Maps and Geography Division it has been fascinating to explore the extensive Ethel Fair collection of pictorial maps, including tourist maps and classroom maps, a highly graphic genre that has only recently attracted academic attention.

This fellowship is also an opportunity to learn from leading experts in American culture through the rich and varied program of events organized by the Library. I learned about documenting contemporary culture at the “Black Lives Matter and Music” presentation at the beginning of June, and I have been inspired by the Library’s Changemakers series.

I am excited to be able to contribute to the French scholarship on American culture and to spread the word that the Library of Congress is an exceptional and accessible site for research. I shall certainly continue to use its online resources. The road does not end here for me.

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The following is a cross-post from the Picture This: Library of Congress Prints and Photos blog. The post is authored by Barbara Orbach Natanson, Head of Reference services for the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division. Pictures can eloquently convey some of the ugliness of war. Creating art can also be a powerful means of communicating the […]