Friday, January 3, 2014

E.B. White, the Railroad, the Transparent Essay

...a land without rail service is a land in decline, or in suspension. E.B. White
E.B. White and his tools
E.B. White's "The Railroad" was published in the February 20, 1960 issue of The New Yorker, as a "Letter from the East." Writing at the cusp of The Space Age, White, then just over fifty years old, laments the condition of the passenger train industry in his home state of Maine, softening his complaints with nostalgic memories of riding the trains as a boy and an adult. "And what's the railroad to me?" White asks at the start. "I have to admit that it means a great deal to me. It fills more than a few hollows. It is the link with my past, for one thing, and with the city, for another—two connections I would not like to see broken." One paragraph later, he asks that rhetorical question again, this time answering more ruefully: "It is a lingering pain in the heart, an old friend who has tired of me and my antics." This pivoting from yearning nostalgia to resigned acceptance creates the essay's wintry tone.

With characteristic patience and a clear eye that moistens now and again with sentiment, White surveys the history of the railroad in the northeast, worries for its future, and basks in memories of the train's unique place in history, its hold on a boy's and a nation's imagination, and its particular way of slowing down time into precious, contemplative segments, a stay against a century moving rapidly, if inevitably. There are many beautiful passages in this beautiful essay, too many to quote, ranging from White's earliest recollections of riding the train with his family when he was six, to describing the train both as a wandering boy on an errand and as a "gossip" that, refusing to be rushed, "stops to chat at back porches, to exchange the latest or borrow a cup of sugar." And there's this rhapsody:
...gradually the railroads fell in love with the sound of their own whistle, with the brightness of the saloons and the brilliance of the station houses, and even after the whistle dwindled to little more than a faint pooping in the hills and the saloons were with drawn from service and the lights in the station houses went out, the railroads stubbornly stuck to their accustomed ways and the ways of the horse.
This passage echoes an earlier quotation from Thoreau, whose musing on the train a century earlier acts as a kind of moral conscience to White's piece, as White looks back to the railroad's Golden Age and forward to a decade—the Sixties—harsh in its speed and novelty. In fact, when he isn't mildly lambasting the Federal Government for saddling trains with mail delivery and for not doing more generally to help the train industry (I wonder what White, who died in 1985, made of Amtrak's continual operation in the red), he's shaking his head at the culture's loving embrace of the automobile and jet plane. Quaintly, White's half-hopeful that the congestion on the Los Angeles freeways might spur more and more Americans to re-embrace the puttering passenger train as the chief mode of transportation across America. This never happened, of course, and that foreknowledge makes reading "The Railroad" dismaying.

But it also reminds me of the power of the essay as a literary form. One could plug in "printed book" or "wrist watches" (or just about any cultural artifact worried to be vanishing) for "railroad" in White's essay and thus plug right in to the current of White's thinking. Every generation laments its own obsolescence, owns an anxious litany of disappearing things and ways of life. For White it was the passenger train, which told its own local time and required that we slow down with its own slowing, around bends, across rickety tracks, as we savored what we saw out the windows, gliding along, unhurried. For me, it's [    ]. For you it's [    ]. Lay "The Railroad" as a transparency on top of our own essaying, and our observations and anxieties and losses line right up.


"As for planes," White writes,
planes have broken the speed of sound and are reaching for the speed of light to see if they can't smash that, too, and soon we will fly to the coast and get there before we start and so will be cheated of the journey—a dreamlike transportation system that gradually gets to be nightmarish, with people whipped so rapidly from point to point that they are in danger of becoming s race of waltzing mice.... If our future journeys are to be little different from flashes of light, with no interim landscape and no interim thought, I think we will have lost the whole good of journeying and will have succumbed to a mere preoccupation with getting there. I believe journeys have value in themselves, and are not just a device for saving time—which never gets saved in the end anyway. Railroad men should take courage when they look at a jet plane, or even at a poky old airliner circling at two hundred miles a hour over an airport waiting for the fog to lift or for its nose wheel to lock into position. The railroad has qualities none can take away, virtues that have never been surpassed. A well-driven train moving smoothly and strongly over a well-laid roadbed offers a traveler advantages and conveniences not to be had in any other form of transportation. Unlike the motorcar, the train does not have to be steered. Unlike the plane, the train can slow down in thick weather. Unlike the bus, the train does not have to pull over to the left every few minutes to pass what is up ahead.
Sigh. What would White have made of the Internet? Of Instant Messaging? Elsewhere in the essay he writes—in good humor—that he knows the train is on the way out, along with his antiquated recommendations and pining for them. His complaints about jet travel are ironically subverted by the two sexy, newer-than-now Jet Age advertisements below that appeared in the very issue of the The New Yorker in which his essay ran. Loss is everywhere. Tomorrow, too.
The New Yorker, February 20, 1960
The New Yorker, February 20, 1960

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