"My Sewer": James J. Flink on His Career Interpreting the Role of the Automobile in Twentieth-century Culture

in Mobility in History
Author: Greg Thompson
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James J. Flink “has clearly established himself as the leading authority on the history of the automobile and has written a major work that will repay careful study by all scholars interested in the 20th century,” wrote cultural historian Joseph J. Corn in 1989 in a review of The Automobile Age. Corn did not write “transportation scholars” but “all scholars,” and was alluding to Flink’s approach to periodizing history around progressive technological change rather than around political administrations or wars. Corn continued, “[Flink] views the car, or more accurately automobility, as being a major protagonist in the historical dramas of the period,” quoting passages that pinned the Great Depression on the saturation of the automobile market and attributed the allies’ triumph in the Second World War to superior mass-production capability stemming from the American automobile industry. Corn also observed, “Flink significantly demolished the myth, repeated by too many historians, that the American experience with automobiles has been exceptional .... Moreover, he concludes, the ‘appeals of the car were universal, not culturally determined’ (pp. 28–29).” Flink published at least two more important articles and was writing his fourth book on the automobile when he retired from his professorship in Comparative Culture at the University of California at Irvine in 1994. Since then, he eschewed academic and professional activity, despite numerous entreaties. However, when I, a former student of Flink’s and now a transportation planning professor, asked him to reflect on his influential career, Flink welcomed the opportunity. I traveled to Professor Flink’s southern California home in March 2012 for the interview, which took place on March 2.2

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