Volume 8, Issue 2: Fall 2012
Roundtable on Teaching Motorcycle Studies
Emerson and Whitman Were Wild Hogs
Charles Johnson, PhD
Department of History
Valdosta State University
Highway 122 north of Valdosta, Georgia is a two-lane road that travels in a straight line past farms, fruit orchards, and the occasional decaying small southern town. More important, it is the most scenic route to the nearest traditional coffee house.
Grassroots Coffee in Thomasville, Georgia is a small micro-roaster set in a restored late-nineteenth-century building complete with high ceilings, exposed brick walls and well-worn wooden floors. Its brewed coffee and house-baked pastries make it well worth the 100-mile-plus round-trip. While some people used to walk a mile for a Camel, I prefer riding 100 miles for a cup of coffee and a delicious scone. It is also a good place to read, write and create—especially if you manage to get one of the two prime window tables.
It was at one of those tables while I sat and drank my cup of Tanzanian Peaberry that the course, “Harley, Hells Angels and History,” came into being. The idea was a product of the journey, but the actual writing occurred at the destination. The title gave just a hint of what would be in store for the students, as the class was designed to be more than a just a course about the Harley and Hells Angels. Instead, it was designed to explore the creation and development of the image of the “biker” in the minds of Americans in the post-World War II era. It was also my hope that the material covered—and the way in which it was covered—would help the students to think about the motorcycle and motorcycling, both past and present, in new and challenging ways.
“Harley, Hells Angels and History” was an upper-division course open to all students, first taught in spring 2012. My only “marketing” for the class, besides its listing in the schedule of courses, was to mention it to the students in my fall 2011 classes. Of the enrolled twenty students, seventeen were men and three were women. Besides myself, there were three other motorcycle enthusiasts in the class. One student rode a Harley and was a member of a local motorcycle club (MC), while two other students were sportbike riders. We met once a week for 150 minutes in a discussion-based seminar format that was broken down into modules. The required texts for the class were Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and The Harley-Davidson Reader (foreword by Jean Davidson), as well as fourteen articles from the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. The students were also required to research and utilize primary source materials in the writing of their papers. These sources included, but were not limited to, magazine and newspaper articles from the various periods under examination and also any first-hand accounts they managed to find.
The course began with a reading assignment of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and a short interpretive essay that was discussed in class. Emerson’s focus on the self, individuality and relationships to others, along with Whitman’s ode to the journey, caused my students to begin thinking about motorcycling and motorcyclists in ways that they had not considered before. One result of the assignment and discussion was the creation of a list of around forty terms that came to the student’s minds when they thought of motorcycles and motorcycling. These ranged from “individualism” and “self-reliance” to “liberation” and “freedom” and then on to “passion” and “sex” (the last term eliciting a lengthy debate and discussion). The initial first-day perceptions of the motorcycle as simply a “dangerous” or “exotic” two-wheeled machine were already beginning to change.
Even though the course was set up as a discussion seminar, the majority of the students had little knowledge of the history of motorcycling. To compensate for this, the students relied on the assigned readings as well my occasional lecture. The topics I discussed included an overview of motorcycling in the United States prior to 1945. I also talked about the development of Harley-Davidson and Indian, as well as the influence of the British, German, and Japanese brands on motorcycling in the United States. Later on in the course, one student observed that for the American and British companies, “the nicest people” were not so nice.
The class centered on four major modules, including the birth of the American biker, the rise of the MC, the view of motorcycling in Hollywood in the 1960s and ’70s, and the revival of American iron in the ’80s and ’90s. The first module focused on the 1947 Hollister rally and the subsequent media and public reactions to the event. We viewed the film The Wild One and the students were then assigned a project requiring them to research the actual event and subsequent popular culture manifestations of it in literature and film. The topic question for the project was:
How did the 1947 incident at Hollister—as well as the subsequent popular culture interpretation of the event—help create the image of the American biker and help to define the motorcycle culture? What were/are the consequences for that culture in the United States?
From the origins and discussion of the 1950s we moved on to the rise of the Hells Angels and the MC culture in the United States. Utilizing Thompson’s text as well as primary source material from the 1960s, such as magazine and newspaper articles, the students wrote an essay based on the following question:
How were the Hells Angels both a product of and a reaction to America and all that it stood for in the 1960s?
Between the two projects a picture began to develop in the minds of the students regarding the place that motorcycles and motorcycling held in American culture. Many reflected upon how much of what is perceived today as being a part of that culture was a manufactured product of popular culture, the media, government and advertising dating all the way back to the 1940s and then through the subsequent decades. Others commented that more often than not there was little truth to these popular perceptions, such as the image of the “biker” as always out to cause trouble was more a myth than a reality. Many also found it ironic that in the film The Wild One, Marlon Brando’s character was actually riding a Triumph while Lee Marvin’s character was the “real” American biker since he rode the Harley.
In regards to the Hells Angels, the general consensus was that while they were indeed trouble makers who broke the law at times, they were also something much more. They were fundamentally a conservative organization that held a strong belief in “freedom” and “patriotism.” This last comment was primarily generated by reading newspaper and magazine accounts of the group’s reactions to protests against the Vietnam War in Berkley, California and Washington, DC during the mid-1960s. Finally, they also reflected on the fact that, in the minds of the average American, the Hells Angels were synonymous with all MC’s and the “outlaw” motorcycle lifestyle.
Although the course had been progressing well, mid-term fatigue was setting in. After two major research papers in six weeks it was time to take an “intellectual break.” What better therapy than the B-biker films of the ’60s and early ’70s? The history of this genre deserves a class of its own (though it might be hard to get this one past the assessment folks), but we settled on watching the classic 1966 film, The Wild Angels. We all know this film as one that manages to portray every stereotype of the biker community in fewer than ninety minutes. The students, however, picked up on the fact that for many in the non-motorcycling world, the stereotype was the reality.
Break over, and the final two modules of the course took us to the end. Using Easy Rider as the next vehicle, we explored the concept of the counter-culture biker, the American dream and the American nightmare. The topic question for their essay was:
How did the film help shape the image of the American biker at the time of its release and through the present day in ways that we have NOT previously discussed in class?
The resulting discussion focused on individuals chasing the American dream, the quest for individuality and the biker as an innocent victim of a society that did not respect individuality and defined freedom in narrow terms. In essence, the biker became a sympathetic victim of the death of freedom and the American dream.
The journey was drawing to a close. We moved on to a discussion of the revival of Harley-Davidson and the corresponding renewed interest in motorcycling in general. The class ended with a screening of Wild Hogs and their final essay project:
What does the motorcycle mean to Americans and how does the motorcycle serve as the “mechanical spirit” that embodies what we stand for as individuals and as a nation?
My only caveat was that they could not use the word freedom in their essays since by now I had heard that word so many times in class it had lost its relevance. Words like individuality, spirit, soul, and identity became substitutes for freedom. The film itself had served its purpose, since by now the students could view it beyond its comic surface and analyze the underlying themes. Just as Woody Allen successfully parodied the New York intellectual scene of the 1970s in Manhattan, Wild Hogs successfully parodied what the motorcycling community had become in the late ’90s and into the present. The journey that began in Massachusetts and New York with Emerson and Whitman was over for now and we had reached our destination of Madrid and our meeting with Peter Fonda—after first losing the watches.
What was accomplished by this journey other than three more credit hours towards graduation and life in the “real” world? Overall, the student evaluations were very positive. They emphasized the discussion format of the course and creative nature of the assignments, although there was some grumbling about the length (five to ten pages). A few students came to my office afterward or stopped me on campus to tell me that the course did help them to think, write and speak in ways that they had not done so before. Others asked if another such course would be offered in the future. Knowing that there is always room to improve and evolve as a person and teacher, I continue my own self-evaluation while riding either my C50 Boulevard or my R1200RT down Highway 122 to Grassroots. Maybe after my fourth cup of Tanzanian Peaberry at the table by the window I will begin to discover some answers.
SOURCES and READINGS
Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
Davidson, Jean. The Harley-Davidson Reader. Minneapolis, MN: MBI Publishing, 2010.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” (1841).
Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Open Road.” In Leaves of Grass. (1892 edition).
The following articles are all from The International Journey of Motorcycle Studies
Phillips, Lily. "Blue Jeans, Black Leather Jackets, and a Sneer: The Iconography of the 1950s Biker and its Translation Abroad."
Joans, Barbara. "GLIB WITH GUTS AND GORE: I Come to Bury HT, Not to Praise Him: The Legend of Hunter Thompson"
Sutherland, Katherine G. "Forty Years Later: Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels"
McBee, Randy D. "A "Pontential Common Front": Hunter Thompson, the Hell's Angels, and Race in 1960s America"
Kieffner, Gary L. "Myth, Reality, and Revenge in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hells Angels"
Dulaney, William L. "A Brief History of 'Outlaw' Motorcycle Clubs"
Chappell, Michael J. "The Failure of the Flag in Easy Rider"
Cummings, William. "Easy Rider and American Empire: A Postcolonial Interpretation"
Semack, Greg. "What Happened to My Motorcycle Movie?"
Holmes, Timothy A. D. "Motorcycle Myth: Rebels without a Horse"
Kieffner, Gary L. "Police and Harley Riders: Discrimination and Empowerment"
Nagy, Paul. "The BRMC and its Humor in The Wild One"
Willett, Julie. "Behaving Like Brando: Transgressing Race and Gender in The Wild On"
Chappell, Michael J. "Death by Discourse, or The Fate of Jimmy in The Wild One"
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