By James Agee

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Poet, critic, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, James Agee wrote for FORTUNE from 1932 to 1939. This marriage of poetry and journalism is from a September 1934 story on the burgeoning roadside business world.

THE CHARACTERS IN OUR STORY are five: this American continent; this American people; the automobile; the Great American Road, and -- the Great American Roadside. To understand the American roadside you must see it as a vital and inseparable part of the whole organism, the ultimate expression of the conspiracy that produced it. As an American, of course, you know these characters. This continent, an open palm spread frank before the sky against the bulk of the world. This curious people. The automobile you know as well as you know the slouch of the accustomed body at the wheel and the small stench of gas and hot metal. You know the sweat and the steady throes of the motor and the copious and thoughtless silence and the almost lack of hunger and the spreaded swell and swim of the hard highway toward and beneath and behind and gone and the parted roadside swarming past. This great road, too; you know that well. How it is scraggled and twisted along the coast of Maine, high-crowned and weak- shouldered in honor of long winter, how like a blacksnake in the sun it takes the ridges, the green and dim ravines which are the Cumberlands, and lolls loose into the hot Alabama valleys . . . Oh yes, you know this road; and you know this roadside. You know this roadside as well as you know the formulas of talk at the gas station, the welcome taste of a Bar B-Q sandwich in mid-afternoon, the early start in the cold bright lonesome air, the dustless and dewy road and the stammering birds, and the day's first hitchhiker brushing the damp hay out of his shirt. All such things you know. But it may never have sharply occurred to you that the Great American Roadside, where this people pauses to trade, is incomparably the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race. This roadside, the most vivid part of a new but powerfully established American institution, is a young but great industry that will gross, in this, the fifth year of the great world depression, something like $3,000,000,000. God and the conjunction of confused bloods, history and the bullying of this tough continent to heel, did something to the American people -- worked up in their blood a species of restiveness unlike any that any race before has known. Whatever we may think, we move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it. And there is no better reason. So God made the American restive. The American in turn and in due time got into the automobile and found it good. The automobile became a hypnosis, the opium of the American people. After the autoist had driven round and round for a while, it became high time that people should catch on to the fact that as he rides there are a thousand and ten thousand little ways you can cash in on him en route. Within the past few years, the time ripened and burst. And along the Great American Road, the Great American Roadside sprang up prodigally as morning mushrooms, and completed a circle that will whirl for pleasure and for profit as long as the American blood and the American car are so happily married.