Many who witnessed the advent of the modern American railroad in the nineteenth century regarded that monument to human industry and mobility as the great unifier. The passenger train reflected to the American people an image of their own intrepidness and, by transporting them across a vast network of once-inaccessible locales, beckoned them to revive the pioneering spirit of this new nation. In his 1876 apostrophe “To a Locomotive in Winter,” an enraptured Walt Whitman exemplified a decades-long fascination with this “emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent.” By the time interwar-era American novelist and railroad enthusiast Thomas Wolfe sat down to write the famously incandescent train episodes of his novel Of Time and the River, as much as a quarter-million miles of track connected railroad stations throughout the lower forty-eight states.
Undoubtedly, in his manic hours poring over volumes of Emerson and Coleridge in Harvard’s Widener Library, Wolfe came across those lines of Whitman’s and took up the mantle. In the motif of locomotion, he was certain that he had captured something, effervescing as he told a friend that he’d put the very best of himself into an extended meditation on trains before Maxwell Perkins’s editorial excisions left him deflated. In fairness, the railroad and its attendant ethos provide the basis for one of the most rehearsed criticisms of Wolfe—that the human relationships he depicts are disappointingly fleeting or discontinuous. After all, at the moment the old peasant on the train from Chartres most endears himself to readers by teaching Wolfe’s protagonist a child’s French, he is a fading silhouette on the platform, never to be seen again. And the French soldier who shares his humble victuals with a hungry Eugene is given one tender line before the train carries him into narrative obscurity: “‘Mangez!’” Some critics suggest this is a creative failure on Wolfe’s part, perhaps a sign of the author’s own emotional immaturity. This, they say, is why you have not heard of Thomas Wolfe: he has been neither capable nor worthy of reaching you. In a single line of the author’s prose we find not only a Rosetta Stone for deciphering his passing encounter in its literary contexts but a maxim for our present moment: “[I]t seems to him,” Wolfe writes of his avatar Eugene Gant, “that all the strange and bitter miracle of life . . . is in that instant greeting and farewell.” What if it is the fading silhouette, the glimpsed hand of charity and not the sustained relationship that embodies the mystery and vitality of American life? What if Wolfe understood this? And what if it is a lesson more pertinent for us today than it ever was in Wolfe’s own lifetime?
In the brief passage of a train, Eugene notes, “one may live a life [and] share instantly in 10,000,000 other ones.” Like Whitman’s, Wolfe’s American feeling is characterized by a wide, democratic embrace, by the project of capturing the grand national mosaic on what Faulkner called “the head of a pin.” In the image of the train, Wolfe saw both the epitome of that project and the uniquely American challenges to its realization, for the industrial age had given birth to a pluralistic and an increasingly atomized body politic. If restlessness was, as historian Paul Johnson notes, a defining feature of our post-revolutionary sense of national self, it culminated in the twentieth century’s alienated metropolitanism, and while the passenger train provided the gift of democratized transportation it also fragmented human interaction. Those 10,000,000 lives fit into an instant only by way of their individual brevity, yet they are to Eugene essential threads in the vast tapestry of experience, touchstones that in their remoteness reflect both the impermanence of this material life and a shared American identity. Eugene marks (as Wolfe himself would have in a notebook he kept on his person for just such occasions) an overheard exchange between two black rail workers. It is a short dialogue, grating for many surface readers in its employment of dialect. Yet, Eugene catalogs the workers’ speech in a metaphorical anthology implicitly representative of e pluribus unum; theirs is a tongue among tongues in the “unceasing, the fabulous, the million-footed city,” a verse within the multitudinous vernaculars of one American voice.
Both on and off the train (even inside and outside of the United States), Wolfe’s protagonist approaches the passing encounter with an American’s appreciation for alienation and transience. Mr. Wang, whose foreignness is at first fodder for Eugene’s chauvinism, shines for but a moment as an oasis of hospitality in cold, crowded Boston. Passing through a rooming house in England, Eugene responds to some British boarders’ attempt at American-style blues with Odyssean tenderness for his homeland. During a single July-Fourth weekend in New York’s upscale Hudson River Valley, he falls in love, as the young are wont to do, with the mere idea of Rosalind Pierce. And in the receding figure of a beautiful girl in Orléans, he understands the “wordless ache of loss and of regret, in which, perhaps more than in the grander, longer meetings of our life, man’s bitter destiny of days, his fatal brevity, are apparent.”
One could argue that America never shed the defining trait of its youth, for restlessness was a feeling Wolfe understood well as he roamed the streets of 1930s New York City in an effluvium of romantic energy. Searching for new material, fresh inspirations, and inventive forms in which to express it all, Wolfe was one of many moving from one experience to the next. His New York was a sea of atomized seekers colliding but briefly in space and time, each to the other a nameless smile or voiceless nod, but each with a story the other would never know. The author writes:
But this was the reason why these things could never be forgotten—because we are so lost, so naked and so lonely in America. Immense and cruel skies bend over us, and all of us are driven on forever and we have no home. Therefore, it is not the slow, the punctual sanded drip of the unnumbered days that we remember best, the ash of time; nor is it the huge monotone of the lost years, the unswerving schedules of the lost life and the well-known faces, that we remember best. It is a face seen once and lost forever in a crowd, an eye that looked, a face that smiled and vanished on a passing train, it is a prescience of snow upon a certain night, the laughter of a woman in a summer street long years ago, it is the memory of a single moon seen at the pine’s dark edge in old October—and all of our lives is written in the twisting of a leaf upon a bough, a door that opened, and a stone.
Across a gulf of anonymity, that smile and that nod affirm simply as Whitman did the most profound of realities: “That you are here—that life exists.” In its briefness, the passing encounter never to be recaptured amplifies the nowness of the moment, the interconnectedness of human experience, and the beautiful fragility of our existence.
The stranger does not have the appeal for us that he once did. In a world in which he is contagion, partisan, accuser, judge, one is loath to make eye contact with him let alone converse. He presents a risk, as all relationships inevitably do. Yet our meeting with him through the inscrutable channels of serendipity is so much a part of American life and values that to disregard him would be to repudiate a glorious legacy.
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