In Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, author James B. Twitchell delivers a long overdue, academically grounded, and literate explanation of the social and historical role recreational vehicles have played for nearly 100 years in American road culture. What elevates Winnebago Nation above the slim shelf of RV books is its elegance of prose, college academician’s intellectual heft, and a robust storyteller’s sense of timing.
Most RV books are rooted in the author’s desire to share his or her travel and living experiences with the passion of an evangelical convert. Twitchell writes with the first hand experience of someone who owns and travels in an RV (a Winnebago View) and to a veteran’s eye his sketches and observations are crisply drawn and sharply true.
The first chapter quickly establishes that the book will not be a, “and then we went there and did that” journal. Twitchell goes convincingly further than ill-fated Everest mountain climber George Mallory’s “because it’s there” answer to why he climbed mountains, and does the best job yet in describing to non-RVers the lure and satisfaction that RV owners derive from the experience. He does this by connecting rational evolutionarily and anthropological behaviors with the advance of the automotive age. And if that sounds like tough sledding, Twitchell’s light touch, humorous asides, and fluid writing style greases the skids for a lively read.
Accompanied by a liberal smattering of vintage ads and photos, the second chapter is a fascinating tour through the early days of road camping.
In his third chapter, Twitchell takes on the role of sociologist as he globally explains the various micro-communities and cultures that coalesce, intersect, and disperse throughout the American RV world. It’s here that non-RVers will find surprising revelations about the swirl of incomes, backgrounds, and interests that paints RV life in a far more positive and accurate color than our current popular culture seems to.
And where do RV’s go to sleep? Chapter four is a mid-altitude survey of camping options. Twitchell enjoyably spends a little entomological and philosophical time considering the appropriateness of the word “camping.” For some, that’s an apt description, but many others don’t see it that way as the words “mobile living” might better describes their experience. From Wal-Mart parking lots to tony RV-only resorts, the reader happily rides along in the copilot seat next to Twitchell.
Finally, in the fifth chapter, Twitchell asks, and to a reasonable degree explains, why the RV has gone from a position of coveted aspirational desire up through the 1950’s to the butt of cultural jokes today. It’s here that he accurately chronicles the change of tone and perception of the RV experience and quite fairly points to the intellectual snobbery of critics who have formed an opinion devoid of first-hand experience.
Unsaid in the book is the theory that somewhere in the cultural sweep of the 60’s the pleasurable values of RV life got ransacked by cultural elites while the industry sat on its hands, ignorant of the fact that they had lost control of the narrative.
RV travelers will find both insight and affirmation in Winnebago Nation. For those contemplating jumping into the RV life, this book should be at the top of the required reading pile. But, most importantly, existing RV owners should have a hard copy of the book to tuck under their arms like a Bible as they go forth in the world to evangelize the virtues of a nomadic life. For, in Winnebago Nation, James Twitchell stands proudly atop the roof of his Winnebago View and elegantly proclaims the nobility of this vastly misunderstood and under appreciated lifestyle.
Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture by James B. Twitchell, 192 pages, Columbia University Press, is available in hardcover or Kindle Edition here at Amazon.