In times of climate crisis, there is wide agreement that we need a more environmental approach to automobility. “Off the Road” addresses this challenge by highlighting a largely forgotten fact: that automobility was a thoroughly environmental experience before the current system of closed cars on concrete roads emerged. This environmental automobility was particularly widespread in the United States, where much driving occurred in off-road conditions well into the 1920s. Motorists navigated through mud, sand, and water, constantly exposed to the elements and acutely aware of their surroundings. Early automobility thus engendered unprecedented modes of relating to the environment—modes that have never been systematically researched.

“Off the Road” recovers this environmental automobility by conceiving it as an aesthetic experience: one that created new sensual perceptions, new strategies of representation, and new formations of environmental knowledge. These aesthetic patterns found their most complex manifestation in road literature. The project assembles researchers from literary studies, environmental history, and the history of knowledge to recover the aesthetics of environmental automobility. (1) It builds an interactive digital corpus of American road literature from 1890 to 1929 to identify the full range of aesthetic strategies employed to render the experience of environmental automobility. (2) It positions these strategies within the modernist aesthetic innovations of the period, thus bringing into view a previously marginalized modernism inspired by slow driving in rural environments. (3) It examines how the aesthetics of automobility generated a new kind of mobile environmental knowledge that shaped environmental activism and the emergent science of ecology. In sum, the project reveals how early automobility created distinct modes of environmental awareness that can help us reconceive mobility today.

“Off the Road” is cooperating with the multidisciplinary research project “Transforming Infrastructure. Cultural Perspectives”.


Doctoral Position in American Studies

(part-time 65%, E 13 TV-L)

The application deadline for this doctoral position has passed.

Postdoctoral Position in North American Environmental History

(full-time, E 13 TV-L)

The application deadline for this postdoctoral position has passed.

Postdoctoral Position in American Studies

(full-time, E 13 TV-L)

The application deadline for this postdoctoral position has passed.


Telephone number