The Secret Lives of Used Books (Modern Gypsies, by Mary Crehore Bedell)

Jon Zobenica
3 min readAug 31, 2020
Modern Gypsies, by Mary Crehore Bedell (New York: Brentano’s, 1924). Photograph by Jon Zobenica.

On May 11, 1925, the Adriance Memorial Library, in Poughkeepsie, New York, acquired Mary Crehore Bedell’s Modern Gypsies (1924). I don’t know when the library discarded the book, but ninety-five years after its acquisition that same copy sits on a shelf in California, next to my Bakelite radio.

Photograph by Jon Zobenica.

Bedell was among the first generation of road-trippers to go overland by car and write about it. Other author-adventuresses of the time include Effie Price Gladding (Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway, 1915), Emily Post (By Motor to the Golden Gate, 1916), and Beatrice Larned Massey (It Might Have Been Worse: A Motor Trip from Coast to Coast, 1920). Add in some wives who copiloted road trips chronicled by their husbands (Zelda in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1924 The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, and Daphne in Dallas Lore Sharp’s 1928 The Better Country), and a genre that came to be associated with questing males seems arguably female-dominated, at least in its earliest stage.

Class probably accounted for part of this, since motoring then was a bit more exclusive, more of a leisure-class hobby, or the hobby of academics, who had summer months off in which to pursue the open road (summer being the only season when the primitive roads of the time were somewhat reliably passable, being neither buried under snow nor reduced to pudding during springtime thaws).

If nothing else, you had to have time. And the working man of those early days didn’t have time to indulge in such grand ventures. (Going coast to coast could take weeks, and the going could be tough.) Another factor was arguably Prohibition, which, whatever its flaws, kept roadside life from getting too seedy for those refined ladies motoring across the country. It was the best of times for them. They were free from the vaguely sleazy air of the drummers’ hotels that populated railway towns and were encountering a mostly unspoiled America along virgin auto routes.

But go to seed the American roadway eventually did, and with it road-trip literature, which came to feature criminals on the lam (Edward Anderson’s 1937 Thieves Like Us, made into the 1948 Farley Granger noir They Live by Night), ruined migrants (the Joads of John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath), dyspeptic expats (Henry Miller’s 1945 The Air-Conditioned Nightmare), pedophiles (Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 Lolita), and hard-partying joyriders (Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road).

Decades after Bedell and her sisters pioneered both road-tripping and road-trip lit, women were once again in the forefront, this time in opposition to the pernicious influence of cars and of the country’s ever expansive road-building schemes: Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Helen Leavitt in Superhighway — Superhoax (1970).

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Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California. jonzobenica.wordpress.com