Microhistory is about digging out tiny bits of what happened in the past and how it felt to be there. Microbiography might be the name to use for what Deborah Davis has done in her new book called The Trip, which launched last week. Davis has unpacked a few weeks in the life of Andy Warhol in the fall of 1963, when he was just spreading his wings as a Pop artist and popular celebrity. The “trip” in question is Warhol’s cross-country drive from New York to Los Angeles, where he was launching his second Pop-art solo. His traveling companions were the painter Wynn Chamberlain, the actor Taylor Mead and the poet Gerard Malanga. (He’s the hunk posing with Warhol in today’s Pic, somewhere near the time of their cross-country adventure.) But one of Davis’s best moments comes with her description of another protagonist along for the ride: The Ford Falcon they traveled in. Davis gives lovely and loving detail about the precise cultural meaning of that car at that time.
I’ll just ad a couple of minor bits of context to her account.
First, the Pittsburgh that Warhol grew up in was a surprisingly un-car-y place. Automobiles were a luxury out of reach of most of its working-class citizens, including the Warhola clan – which explains why Warhol never learned to drive. (Although we have documents proving that he later tried.) Pittsburghers’ normal means of transportation was an absurdly extensive trolley system, which, in an effort to prove its wealth and modernity, the city later replaced with highways. All of which is just by way of showing that Davis is right to dwell on that trip to L.A. as something more notable for Warhol than it might have been for many other Americans. When he got to L.A. and was feted, it would have been proof of having “arrived”, in many senses of the world.
One other little detail that might have made that seem so. In early 1949, during Warhol’s last term in Pittsburgh’s excellent art school, he and his classmates were told to illustrate All The King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s new Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about American political culture. The drawings Warhol made, based on news photos and done in his new “blotted-line” style, were the source of at least the next ten years of his art – only to be superseded, not long before his L.A. trip, by the invention of his new Pop-art techniques.
And here are the opening lines in that important Warholian novel:
To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive.
In lots of ways, Warhol’s “trip” gave him a chance to live what he’d only imagined.