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American Autobiographies: Walks, Steamboats, and the First Cars

Brandon Riederer is an Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.

Walden Pond - The site and source of inspiration for Thoreau's masterpiece, "Walden"

Walden Pond - The site and source of inspiration for Thoreau's masterpiece, "Walden"

Transportation and Defamiliarization

Self-identity is constructed through subjective perspectives but it is still ultimately influenced by prevalent cultural ideologies. Some of these cultural influences forever shape national perspectives. For instance, John Locke’s ideas on the cultivation of nature for purposeful industries in his “Leviathan” are not only rooted in important American documents such as the U.S. Constitution, but it is also embedded within the language and thought-patterns of all American citizens. Thus, the foundations of American ideologies are—for the most part—unwavering. Even so, technology has played a prominent role in defamiliarizing American perspectives. For example, in the autobiographical works of three well-known authors— Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Theodore Dreiser— readers can notice the centrality of transportation in the construction of self and national identity during a time in American history where industrialization and urbanization were taking course. For Thoreau, Twain, and Dreiser, their chosen modes of transportation, as communicated in their personal narratives, have their own defamiliarizing effects on both their locations and their conceptions of themselves within the world.

Henry David Thoreau: Walking

When Thoreau ventured into the woods to Walden Pond, he sought to “front only the essential facts of life” (Thoreau, pg. 123). His transcendentalist beliefs lead him to speculate that self-identity must be realized separate from national-identity, and vice versa. Only afar as an outsider could he objectively observe the machinations of society, and only by immersing himself into a world where he acts as Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” could he allow himself insights into divinity and truth (Emerson, pg. 212). Furthering building his character in inspiration of Emerson’s philosophies on nature, he “work[ed] on the world with his understanding alone. He live[d] in it, and master[ed] it by a penny-wisdom” (Emerson, pg. 241). One of the many ways Thoreau immersed himself into nature to act in accordance with his transcendental beliefs was by the very simple act of walking.

Walking was a defamiliarizing activity for Thoreau during his experiment at Walden Pond. Both in nature and when he would visit town he would constantly jot down mental notes on every acute detail he was compelled by in the wilderness and society. Such a recess as Thoreau took from everyday norms allowed him to notice the often overlooked particulars of life such as the signs that “were hung out on all sides to allure him” and “the vitals of the village were the grocery, the bar-room, the post-office, and the bank” as he “strolled through the village” (Thoreau, pg. 132). Ultimately, by shifting his perspective to an outsider of society, his perspective experiences estrangement; in other words, by adopting a detached relationship with civilization, he was able to make the old seem new again. Ultimately, however, one must consider “if [they] are ready to leave [their] father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again” because “if [they] have paid [their] debts, and made [their] wills, and settled all [their] affairs, and are a free man; then [they] are ready for a walk” (Thoreau, pg. 3). Thus, according to Thoreau, walking away from familiarity was the first step a person could take towards achieving self-actualization and attaining a deeper understanding of society.

Mark Twain: Sailing

Unlike Thoreau, Mark Twain’s autobiographical sketches The Boy’ Ambition, I Want to Be a Cub-Pilot, Perplexing Lessons, and Continued Perplexities from his “Life on the Mississippi” focus on a much newer and unfamiliar mode of transportation: the steamboat. The steamboat was an energizing force in his village Hannibal, Missouri in which “the town drunkards sitrs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving” as soon as a steamship rolled into town (Twain, pg. 198). The strange appearance of this foreign object forced “people [to] fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they [were] seeing for the first time” (Twain, pg. 198). For many of those folks, it actually was a brand new experience that made them see the Mississippi river and Hannibal, Missouri through a new perspective characterized by its bustling “drays, carts, men, boys” and the idealized life of living on the sea (Twain, pg. 198). The very dream of sailing on a steamboat led Twain to run away and never to return until he was the captain of his own steamship.

Following his quest to captaincy, Twain’s romantic perspective of the steamboat life was ultimately disillusioned when he realized that “the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river” (Twain, pg. 213). He had realized that “the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face” had essentially “ceased altogether” because he had become too accustomed to its face (Twain, pg. 213). In other words, the mystical qualities in which Twain beheld the river was originally amplified by the defamiliarizing effects of the steamboat and its capacity to allow Twain to soak in the rare splendor of the water in a way in which was bewitching; even so, as “the world was new” to Twain at first, he slowly fell victim to the dullness of ‘sameness’ that Theodore Dreiser warns readers about in his “A Hoosier Holiday.”

Theodore Dreiser: Driving

For Dreiser, the automobile offered more convenience and efficiency than walking, sailing, or railroads could ever muster because automobiles, “whether for a long tour or a short one, it appears to make man independent and give him a choice of life, which he must naturally prefer” (Dreiser, pg. 290). Even so, convenience and efficiency were not Dreiser’s only praise for the automobile. One of Dreiser’s major points was that traveling by car estranged commonplaceness of our everyday routes. He was so accustom to traveling “over a fixed route, which once or twice seen, or ten times, as in my case, had already become an old story” that he believed that “only the dull can love sameness” (Dreiser, pg. 290). Thus through Dreiser’s perspective, the automobile is a vessel for defamiliarizing “new and varied roads” as well as “woodland silences, grassy slopes, sudden and sheer vistas at sharp turns, and streams not followed by endless lines of cars” (Dreiser, pg. 290). Such new and unfamiliar differences in modes of transportation between railways and cars charge Dreiser’s narrative with abounding energy and vigor for autonomy and freedom of movement.

What Does it All Mean, Anyway?

Whereas Thoreau sought to leave the world of society and technology in order to see the world anew, Twain and Dreiser ventured the opposite direction— towards the wonders of modern inventions— in order to dispel the staleness of routine. Essentially, however, both parties converge on mutual grounds of defamiliarizing their worldviews by immersing themselves into new experiences enabled by unusual modes of transportation. For Thoreau, insights into self-identity sprung from his meditative approach to analyzing the smallest details of nature; for Twain, self-identity is most sacred and natural when people are farthest from what they most desire to see; and for Dreiser, self-identity can be continually renewed and moved by always testing the limits of one’s experiences. Even today modes of transportation can have highly defamiliarizing effects on people’s notions of themselves, society, and their conception of time and space. Perhaps one of the most important modes in contemporary America that expounds this idea is the commercial airplane because people can now travel to every corner of the globe in merely a few days’ time, experience foreign cultures without living amongst them for extended periods, and literally never run out of new places to go or see.


Dreiser, T. (1999). A Hoosier Holiday from The norton book of american autobiography. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Emerson, R. (2012). Nature from The norton anthology of american literature (vol. b). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Parini, J. (1999). The norton book of american autobiography. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Thoreau, H. (1999). Walden from The norton book of american autobiography. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Twain, M. (1999). Life on the Mississippi from The norton book of american autobiography. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

© 2019 Instructor Riederer