The year I counted as its 100th anniversary was 2015. The route had actually been laid out in 1913 (which is why the Lincoln Highway Association celebrated its centennial two years ago), but 1915 was the year that the first caravan of cars actually went the distance from New York to San Francisco. (Which the Lincoln Highway Association is also celebrating, in more muted form.) Last summer, my son and I took a driving trip from San Francisco to Chicago, and we covered some long stretches of the original road. I thought of that as sort of a scouting trip for the centennial.
Sadly, I’m not going to be able to make the drive this year. Now that I’ve temporarily shelved The Undressing of America to write its “prequel,” I really need to lean into the writing and finish the thing before I blow another deadline. Next year, though, I should be able to make it work. Which means I can either change this to a 99th anniversary tribute...or, more satisfying to my sense of narrative, come up with something from 1916 that it can be the 100th anniversary of. And I think I’ve got it.
The hardy caravan of 1915 called attention to the highway, but people were not immediately convinced that this 3,389 mile drive over mountains and across deserts, much of it on dirt and gravel roads, was really a plausible undertaking for the normal American. It wasn’t until the next year that ordinary vacationers began to work up the courage to try it and that the idea of a cross-country road truly became part of American culture. Specifically, July 1916 saw the publication of the first commercial travel book about the highway, By Motor to the Golden Gate, written by Emily Post—who was then just six years shy of becoming famous as the author of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, the most popular and influential book ever about good manners.What especially appeals to me about this is that Emily Post figures (not significantly but, in her brief appearance, heroically) in my Undressing of America. That book is mostly about the early 20th century battles by a wide range of truth-tellers and free-speakers against the censorship and “culture of reticence” that had dominated American culture for decades, and very early in the century Emily Post struck a significant public blow against hypocrisy and shame. The whole story is pretty ornate, but it’s basically this: the sleazy publisher of a gossip magazine, who made more money by blackmailing New York socialites than with the magazine itself, threatened to expose Edwin Post’s affairs with chorus girls unless he paid up. Post, who had squandered his own money on said chorus girls, rushed home to his wife Emily, whose father was rich, and begged her to pay the blackmail so his shenanigans wouldn’t be publicized and humiliate them both. And Emily said, “Fuck you.”
Well, she probably didn't literally say “Fuck you,” what with being the future queen of American etiquette and all. But in essence she said “Fuck you.” She called the cops, got the sleazy publisher arrested, publicly dumped Edwin for screwing around, and basically said that she didn’t see why a woman should be shamed because her husband was a dick. Then she picked up her own career as a novelist and journalist, which eventually ended up with her and a couple of relatives driving the Lincoln Highway for Collier’s magazine.
So next year I hope to drive, as closely as possible, the length of the original Lincoln Highway, and then I hope to write about the road and what it says about America and how the country has changed in the last hundred years—all of it at least partly in honor of the fearless Mrs. Post. And if I work things right, the book will come out in 2019, which happens to be the centennial of the highly publicized first US Army convoy along the road, the moment when the federal government gave its stamp of approval to the idea of national highways. And in that convoy was a very young Dwight D. Eisenhower...but that’s the next part of the story.