Monday, May 16, 2022

'The American God, the Automobile'

Art Tatum was a jazz piano player of genius who was blind for much of his life and an enthusiastic drinker. Often, he insisted on driving. In Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum (Oxford, 1994), James Lester writes: “Art seems to have had a love affair with cars, and once told friends that his greatest regret in life was not being able to drive.” But that didn’t stop him. Lester reports a story from the 1940’s told by Al Hibbler, a singer with Duke Ellington’s orchestra who was also blind: 

“I thought, ‘Man, I’m crazy, sittin’ up here and I’m going to let this blind fool drive me? I’m a fool—and the keys were in the ignition! I’m getting out of here—and he ain’t driving me. I can see better ’n you can! I ain’t going to let you drive me all over.’ He got real mad about it. But it passed over, you know. . . . he’s drunk and I’m drunk. We both drunk as fools. Sittin’ up there drinkin’ all night and singin’. He wasn’t going to try it with me! Art could see just a little bit—but not well enough to drive no car. And I knew it and he knew it.”


Elsewhere, Lester refers to Tatum as a “blind navigator” and recounts the time he took his cousin Chauncey Long’s Model A and drove it into a tree. Perhaps it was pride, a blind man trying not to be dependent on others. After reporting that Ray Charles once demolished his own car, Lester writes: “For the visually handicapped to wish to be more mobile is certainly not surprising.”


Tatum’s opposite are people who never learn to drive – a choice that makes one, among Americans, a worrisome freak. Vladimir Nabokov never learned. He estimated that between 1949 and 1959, VĂ©ra, his wife, drove him more than 150,000 miles on lepping expeditions across the continent. The writer who documented roadside America in Lolita couldn’t drive, but seems not to have had anything against automobiles and driving, unlike Guy Davenport. A sub-theme present in many of Davenport’s essays is the evil of cars and their impact on the world. In “The Symbol of the Archaic” he derides “. . . the automobile, the machine that stole the city’s rationale for being, and made us all gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved.”


In “Whitman” (!) he writes: “The largest American business is the automobile, the mechanical cockroach that has eaten our cities; that and armaments.” In “The Indian and His Image” he refers to “the American God, the Automobile.”


I’m sympathetic, but in a vacuum. I’ve driven for five-sixths of my life but have never enjoyed it. Driving is not relaxing. It’s work, like assembling Ikea furniture but more dangerous. The surest way to depress myself is to try calculating all the money I have spent in my life on automobiles – their purchase and maintenance, fuel, insurance, repairs and so on. Cars are the third-most common and tedious topic of conversation, after politics and sports. At my first three newspapers, I lived close enough to the office to walk there, and often did. Houston is unimaginable without a car. In the Whitman essay, Davenport notes that “a man in an automobile is as active as a sloth.”


[All the essays quoted can be found in Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981).]


Richard Zuelch said...

As it happens, Davenport's November, 1994 piece, "The Comic Muse" (a review of "The Oxford Book of Comic Verse") is up at the New Criterion website ( Scroll down to the bottom.

Richard Zuelch said...

I should have noted, regarding Davenport's article in the New Criterion that, once you get down to the bottom of the page, you need to click on "Archive."

slr in tx said...

Not that anyone asked, but it's National Biographer's Day today. I must confess I have never heard of such, but can well imagine why May 16th was chosen. Be sure to celebrate accordingly.

slr in tx said...

Two b's or not two b's? It's Al Hibbler. (is it true that all newspapermen hate editors?)

Dave McKenna never learned to drive, but he got around pretty well on a keyboard.