Withers, Jeremy, and Daniel P. Shea (Eds.). Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature and Film. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 346. Notes, index. $40.72 hardback.
Reviewed by Mitchell McSweeney
Today, bicycles most commonly serve as a tool for individuals’ transportation; saving money; engaging in exercise; or being a responsible citizen who reduces their carbon-gas imprint. One would be hard pressed to find a significant amount of work that looks beyond these typical uses, and explores the bicycle’s meaning within cultures and societies. However, the 2016 book, Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature & Film, edited by Jeremy Withers and Daniel Shea, provides such an analysis.
The overall focus of the book is to provide an in-depth, critical analysis of the bicycle in literary and film works from the 1880s onward, and to move beyond those common technical and sociological analyses of the bicycle. The book is structured in two parts: Part 1 (literature) and Part 2 (film). Part 1 begins with Dave Buchanan’s chapter on two pieces of literature from the 1880s. He examines how the bicycle was at once a modern means of transportation (at the time) for the purposes of re-creating travel experiences of literary authors who travelling pilgrims were fond of reading. Although the individuals faced some disappointments when visiting literary sites, cycling heightened “these late Victorians’ experience of reading and savoring old texts” (p. 34).
Chapter 2, by Peter Kratzke, explores three novels in relation to how the bicycle, upon its creation in the late 1880s, was at first a celebratory machine that then turned (not completely) obsolete when the automobile was invented. However, even today, the connectivity the bicycle provides between “man” and machine leaves it as a tool for many. In Chapter 3, Alyssa Straight presents the first of several chapters focusing on bicycles and women, and analyzes a text called The Type-Writer Girl. In this novel, the intersections of women’s rights, bicycles, medicine, and biology are discussed, specifically about “bicycle face”, a condition that would make cyclist’s faces strained due to riding. The woman in the novel, resisting such perceptions, uses the bike to display her freedom, financial independence, and adventure, all through the use of the technological bicycle.
Chapter 4, by Withers, examines a novel by H.G. Wells, The War in the Air (1908). Taking us through the book, Withers displays how the bicycle was viewed during a time of technological growth–during automobile and airplane development–within the world. Wells questions the breakdown of barriers to communication due to technological advancement, and depicts the benefits of the bicycle in relation to other transportation devices and their issues (e.g., a flat tire on an automobile) to show the bicycle as the ideal type of transport. Chapter 5, by Cory Cropper, examines the human-bicycle relationship within Alfred Jarry’s The Supermale, a tale that discusses the rapid technological advancements in society in the early 1900s. “In the machine era”, as Cropper puts it, the need for “man” to be stronger, better, and faster, illuminates how the bicycle is a technological part of an overarching structure of society to modernize, which mechanizes and dehumanizes individuals to enhance human performance.
Chapter 6 and 7 again turn to a feminist perspective on the bicycle. In my opinion, these two chapters are two of the most significant and contributory pieces within the book. Taking readers through the use of the bicycle by a woman in In Search of Lost Time, Una Brogan’s depicts the bicycle as a tool to resist the norms of bourgeois society, which is also utilized to display the embracement of new gender identities and sexual orientations. The preceding chapter, by Nanci Adler, further builds on Brogan’s analysis and examines the use of the bicycle by Helene, a young women character in The Blood of Others, who uses the bicycle as a symbol of her transformation from a child to an adult, as well as from a perspective that sees the bicycle as a symbol of class to a utilitarian tool that gives her new life and meaning to join the Nazi Resistance.
Chapter 8, by Amanda Duncan, provides an important perspective on the bicycle in text – the binary between human and non-human. Duncan discusses how both authors use the bicycle to discuss writing as a continuous motion, which is displayed by the authors by writing in a postmodern, intertwining, and seemingly unpurposeful style, in contrast to the common structure of writing. In this way, they also display the connections between writer and bicycle, questioning the need to separate and distinguish between human and bicycle. In the last chapter of Part 1, Stephen King’s novels that involve the bicycle are explored by Don Tresca. In IT, one of King’s most popular novels, the bicycle is used to refer the main protagonist back to childhood upon using his bike to eliminate the monster from his town. Likewise, other novels of King’s are shown to display the bicycle as a symbol of childhood, and more interestingly, how automobiles are displayed by King to be a form of evil and adulthood.
Part 2 begins the section on films and bicycles with a chapter by Matthew Pangborn, which focuses on the well-known film the Wizard of Oz. Focusing on the brief scene where Dorothy meets the Wicked Witch, Pangborn shows how the bike was portrayed as a horrific beginning to technological advancement in modern times and, furthermore, like the movie overall, represents the involvement of women in consumer culture and the bicycle as a catalyst to automobile development. Chapter 11, by Charles Silet, examines the film Jules and Jim (1962), which takes place in France and, through the tale of a young woman and a love triangle, as well as bicycle posters that appear in the film, displays the social changes that took place in France, particularly the New Wave of feminism which saw women who had “greater freedom of movement, and diminished domestic roles” (p. 209). This chapter is especially well-done as it includes numerous pictures of the posters in the movie and images from throughout the film, creating a visual appeal and allows the reader to connect with the discussion.
Chapter 12, by Benjamin van Loon, focuses on the perspective of the bicycle by a postman in The Sacrifice in which he is tasked with stopping an apocalypse and uses his bicycle as a means to travel. Suggesting that the bike moves beyond its simplicity as a tool of transportation, the bicycle acts as a metaphor that exhibits the technological process and the pitfalls of such progress. Following this, Chapter 13 is one of the most appealing and unique chapters in the book. Anne Ciecko explores several films from a neorealist perspective, of most notable being films based in Iran and Saudi Arabia, which include tales of a young woman using the bicycle to resist and disrupt gender norms and expectations in traditional societies and cultures. This examination is unique as it offers a rarely-explored context.
Chapter 14 explores the film Breaking Away (1979), that places a man, Dave, in a position of a class struggle as he attends college versus following the path of fellow limestone “cutters” with whom he shares an identity. The author, Ryan Hediger, utilizes a vital materialism perspective that complicates distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, illuminating how humans are intertwined with the materialism of the bicycle as well as the social identities and class structures that may be represented through the bicycle.
In the following chapter, Jinhua Li offers an insightful analysis of a film, Beijing Bicycle, which shows the use of the bicycle by two young men in the consumer-driven, capitalist, and urban dystopia within the city. One character sees the bicycle as material consumption to build cultural and social capital amongst friends that adds to his gang identity; the other character is a migrant worker who needs the bicycle to travel to work and survive financially. Chapter 16, the final chapter in Part 2, is also a very well-written and unique chapter that explores the position of the bicycle in African-American urban hip-hop videos. The music videos display the stories of young hip-hop artists whom see the bike as cool, better for the environment then cars, and are a form of resistance to the depiction of cycling as a white, masculine practice in society (although changing) and especially film. In the afterword, Daniel Shea provides an analysis of several paintings of the bicycle, taking the reader through a brief and succinct exploration of how the bicycle is portrayed in art to complete the book.
As seen by the above chapters, the book offers an extensive, in-depth look into the bicycle in culture and society. Nonetheless, as with any undertaking of such an extensive exploration of an object such as the bicycle, there remains some challenges and limitations of the work. In particular, and perhaps due to page limitations, some chapters feel as if further analysis and interpretation is needed to convey the arguments of the author(s) in-depth. Perhaps a further use of sources to connect with theories and concepts beyond the analytical description presentation for some chapters would have strengthened their arguments. Overall, however, the authors draw on a number of sources, especially historical sources, which is telling as literature on bicycles remains scarce.
Some chapters also fail to provide male-female gender language, which, although was only done in the two chapters that talked specifically of ‘men’ in relation to bicycles, underrepresents how women use the bicycle (which is illustrated by multiple authors within the book), and therefore I do not believe the use of “men” in these chapters is suitable. Lastly, although the book does an efficient job of analyzing the bicycle in numerous contexts (including different locations within films and literary texts), many of the chapters remain focused on Western depictions of the bicycle as well as the use of the bicycle by males.
Overall, however, Culture on Two Wheels offers an extensive and unique analysis for anyone interested in bicycles, especially those who find interest in its use beyond technical and mechanic ability. Furthermore, this book intersects with multiple disciplines, offering perspectives that align with feminist, cultural, sport, sociological, historical, film, English, and literacy disciplines, amongst others. The expansive discussion of a non-human object, the bicycle, in relation to culture and society makes this book a valuable resource for an undergraduate or graduate class as it draws on a number of different perspectives and unique insights. The book especially offers many chapters with a strong analysis of how women, in times of feminist movements all the way from the 1890s onward, utilized the bicycle to gain freedom and disrupt traditional norms and expectations. Additionally, many chapters, as mentioned within sections above, hold significance for those wishing to apply different theories to non-objects or inanimate objects. These chapters provide an opportunity for scholars and researchers interested in the bicycle to move beyond traditional analyses and investigate how the bicycle is attached to human subjectivity (and objectivity) and is taken up by a variety of different groups and individuals, thus offering a number of future opportunities.
Mitchell McSweeney is a PhD Candidate in the School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at York University in Toronto, ON. His current research interests include sport-for-development, diaspora, and social entrepreneurship. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.