Boats, Trains, Cars & the Popular Eye

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    Boats, Trains, Cars &the Popular EyeAuthor(s): Wayne FranklinSource: The North American Review, Vol. 273, No. 1 (Mar., 1988), pp. 15-19Published by: University of Northern IowaStable URL: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 21:54

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  • N A R

    Boats, Trains, Cars

    & the Popular Eye WAYNE FRANKLIN

    A perspective of its own, vanishing speedily into the distance, the road

    unified all space by focusing it in the motorist's eye.

    it's hard to imagine P.T. Barnum, America's great show

    man, in retreat. Certainly he scattered the world with

    things any ordinary person ought to have found fearsome, and the very reason Barnum could persist in his hoaxes and humbugs was that he embodied the salient go aheadism of nineteenth-century America. He never

    looked back. This is why it is curious to find him as timid as his auto

    biography claims he was during a certain train ride in the Midwest. Due in Fort Wayne for a speaking engagement

    in 1866, Barnum found himself stranded in Toledo long after all the regular connecting trains had left. So tight was his lecture calendar for the summer that Barnum knew he wouldn't be able to reschedule the Fort Wayne appearance for at least two months, and he was desperate to avoid disappointing his audience. Going to the superin tendent of the Toledo, Wabash and Western Railway, a

    Mr. Andrews, Barnum tried to arrange for the rental of a

    special engine and car. At first, Andrews refused Barnum's request: there were no extra locomotives avail

    able, and besides, the tracks to Fort Wayne would be filled with freights all night. Once he realized who he was

    talking to, however, Andrews quickly proposed that for Mr. Barnum, of course, one of the freights just about to

    leave the station in Toledo could simply be comman

    deered, the others warned aside, and the showman

    allowed to dash westward. With typical bravura, Barnum had offered to "ride to

    Fort Wayne astride of the engine, or boxed up and stowed

    away in a freight car"?as always, he was thinking of the show he might make at the end of the line?but as the train was readied, more agreeable accomodations were

    arranged. All but two of its cars were removed and Barnum was escorted to the caboose, where he was to

    ride. Once ensconced in the caboose at the Toledo sta

    tion, Barnum vowed that he felt "as happy as a king." "In

    fact," he went on, "I enjoyed a new sensation of imperial superiority, in that I was 'monarch of all I surveyed,' emperor of my own train, switching all other trains from the main track, and making conductors all along the line

    wonder what grand mogul had thus taken complete pos session and control of the road." At the first stop along the

    route, the mogul in question wired ahead to Fort Wayne to assure the lecture committee of his timely?if unor

    thodox?arrival, and dispatched an answer to Mr. Ander

    son's query, received at the same station, regarding Barnum's comfort in the caboose: "The springs of the caboose are softer than down; I am as happy as a clam at

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  • N A R

    high water; I am being carried towards Fort Wayne in a

    style never surpassed by Caesar's triumphal march into

    Rome." Never one to miss a chance for hyperbole, es

    pecially in connection with his own ventures, Barnum

    ended with a loud "Hurrah for the Toledo and Wabash


    We forget how radically the landscape of the United

    States (and of Europe, and eventually the third world) was altered by the coming of the iron horse. A mere forty

    years earlier, for instance, Barnum's whole venture?his

    tightly scheduled, distance-defying lecture tour of the

    continent's vast center?would simply have been impos

    sible. Important innovations had taken place in the trav

    eler's world forty years earlier, but that world was still a

    tedious one by modern standards. The Erie Canal, which was just opening in New York State in the mid 1820s, when Barnum was a teenager, allowed for the economical

    movement of people and goods between the seacoast and

    the Great Lakes, but at that time, or earlier, all travel was

    excruciatingly slow. A canal boat, the radical newspaper man Horace Greeley recalled after railroad travel had

    become common, was famous for its "cent and a half a

    mile, mile and a half an hour" rate and pace. The days

    passed "slowly yet smoothly," Greeley remembered,

    being ". . . enlivened by various sedentary games."


    the nights were "tedious beyond any sleeping-car experi ence." Covering a mere thirty-six miles

    a day at the rate

    Greeley indicated, a canal boat would take several days before delivering its cargo, human or not, in Buffalo. The

    advertised schedule for the Philadelphia to Pittsburgh route of the Pennsylvania Canal was a fast four days for

    the full 394 miles, although it customarily took longer to

    get through the 174 locks and to ascend and descend the

    unusual rail section over the highest peaks of the Alle

    ghenies. Canal travel, in short, owed its great attraction

    not to its speed but to its low cost, especially for the move

    ment of freight, since it greatly reduced the expense of

    hauling manufactured goods west and farm produce east.

    Henry David Thoreau, on his rowboat excursion with his

    brother John in 1839, encountered upstream-bound canal

    boats?these were sail and pole powered, however?so

    slow that the brothers overtook them as they rowed their

    own way upstream on the rather swift Merrimack. Of

    these vessels in general, Thoreau noted that "With their

    broad sails set, they moved slowly up the stream in the

    sluggish and fitful breeze, like one-winged antedeluvian

    birds, and as if impelled by some mysterious counter


    The pace on rivers like the Merrimack, or on the canals proper, was that of a pedestrian. The landscape

    drifted by, perhaps as fast as four miles per hour, all of it

    readily visible, not blurred, as tangible as the world which

    might surround a fieldworker or a peddler in the pre modern world. With the coming of steamboats on the rivers and lakes of America, the landscape began to speed up?and to get noisy. The canal boat, of course,

    was a

    relatively silent entity?perhaps made raucous by its sometimes crowded passengers, but not mechanically intrusive. The steamboat, however, began to move the

    American traveler more quickly through the countryside, and began as well to cover the natural sounds of the land

    scape with its clatter, and to blanket the scene with smoke. Still, the speeds were generally modest (certainly no faster than a quick team pulling a buggy) and the space of water which set the steamboat off from the shore

    pushed the landscape back far enough from the viewer that it rarely blurred as the vessel passed upstream or

    down. The canons of the painterly tradition, in other

    words, were still appropriate to this first stage of mecha nized travel: one might look toward the shore and under stand what was to be seen there in completely prein dustrial terms. No new aesthetic was needed. Traditional

    landscape assumed, as a radical principle,

    a viewer at

    rest?perspective as a device, after all, organizes space

    according to one set point of view. Early mechanized travel did not overcome the inertia of this arrangement, even though it had begun to push against such restraints.

    Never found on railroads, the

    dramatic vertical climb became

    a popular attraction of the high

    way, a kind of rollercoaster ride

    a traveler could boast about

    once the radiator had cooled

    down and the clutch was fixed.

    ' l#oit&9 Up ?ter* JH.

    ?AYS MU. *10fU*6 HI ti. its?rr. _ ntsrr.

    U* ??4 DOWN $ OVit THt tUJf ?DG? J?


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    Enter the train in general, and Barnum's train in particu lar. The very first trains hardly improved the typical speed

    of horse or canal travel. But quite soon the train was going at a rate three times that of the old stagecoaches, shrink

    ing distance dramatically. By mid-century, railroad

    speeds were approaching what we might think of as a dis

    tinctly modern pace. And in speeding up the process of travel the trains both shrank the landscape and distorted it. Visually, the landscape now consisted of several

    roughly-dissociated planes seen sideways from the lateral windows of the passenger cars. First is the completely blurred closeup space, extending from the ties and ballast

    immediately outside and below the window to the em

    bankments alongside the tracks, the telegraph poles, the

    brush, and any nearby buildings. The train's movement is so fast that little in this plane can be discerned: it is all

    seen, but not truly perceived', colors predominate over

    forms, orientations are twisted out of true, objects

    replace, rather than truly flow into each other. The sec

    ond plane consists of a space in the middle distance, ex

    tending from several hundred feet to perhaps a mile, de

    pending on speed and on the terrain in question. Within this plane there is a curious rotating effect, as if the land seen at any one moment is circulating around a point in the farther distance; the lines of perspective seem to

    bend, as it were, as one proceeds. Only beyond this middle distance, along the horizon and in the areas this side of it where objects stop their rush, do we locate again the illusion of that world which predates the age of

    speed?that world where the rail passenger can once

    more regain the painterly landscape. A great deal of commentary from the last century

    treats the effect produced on eye and mind by this multi

    planar acceleration of travel. Wolfgang Schivelbusch's wonderful book, The Railway Journey, gathers good sam

    ples of it, and I would like to cite some of those, adding to

    Schivelbusch's finds others I have located in various sources. For example, we read in Schivelbusch how

    George Stephenson, the greatest railroad figure in 19th

    century Britain, testified at a Parliamentary hearing into

    railway safety in 1841 that an engineer's ability to detect

    upcoming obstacles depended on his line-of-sight. "If his attention is drawn to any object before he arrives at the

    place," Stephenson noted, "he may have a pretty correct

    view of it; but if he only turns himself round as he is pass

    ing, he will see it very imperfectly." Four years earlier, Victor Hugo had caught precisely the latter problem: "The flowers by the side of the road," he wrote in a letter

    describing the passenger's lateral view from a train, "are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red or

    white; there are no longer any points, everything becomes a streak; the grainfields are great shocks of

    yellow hair; fields of alfalfa, long green tresses; the towns, the steeples, and the trees perform a crazy mingling dance on the horizon; from time to time, a shadow, a shape, a

    spectre appears and disappears with lightning speed behind the window ..." And the art historian Jacob Burckhardt, writing in 1840, likewise calls attention to

    the fact that "It is no longer possible to really distinguish the objects closest to one?trees, shacks, and such:


    soon as one turns to take a look at them, they already are

    long gone." So by 1840, long before trains reached any thing like their modern acceleration, the perceptual revo

    lution they represented was being fully noted. One feels the impressionist aesthetic taking shape already in such comments: objects are dissolving, the eye is under con

    tinual stress, the fact of perception is becoming dramat

    ically relativistic. So serious were these effects thought to be in some

    circles at the time that a British medical journal in 1867, cited by Schivelbusch, worried about the fatigue rail travel might induce. "The rapidity and variety of the im

    pressions necessarily fatigue both the eye and the brain," it warned. "The constantly varying distance at which the

    objects are placed involves an incessant shifting of the

    adaptive apparatus by which they are focused upon the retina: and the mental effort by which the brain takes

    cognizance of them is scarcely less productive of cerebral wear [merely] because it is unconscious. ..." The aes

    thetician John Ruskin noted the corollary of this analysis: namely, that nervous excitation results in boredom?"all

    travelling," he declared, "becomes dull in exact propor tion to its rapidity." If the eye and mind were over

    whelmed with impressions, they responded first with

    frenzy, then disinterest. The traveler's world lost its

    coherence; it also lost its emotional integrity and affective

    appeal. As Schivelbusch notes, those travelers old enough to have known the age of pre-industrial travel often showed an incapacity to adjust to the demands of indus trial movement, and exhibited a corresponding despair over its dulling assault on their senses.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson praised Thoreau and his brother in 1839 for having fronted the world directly in their river voyage, not "getting

    . . . into a railroad-car

    where they have not even the activity of holding the

    reins," but rather launching forth in a boat they had built with their own hands. Emerson himself, riding a train in

    1843, spoke of the "dreamlike travelling on the railroad." "The towns which I pass between Philadelphia and New

    York," he said, "make no distinct impression. They are like pictures on a wall." Emerson admitted in the same

    year that his fellow citizens found the railroad, which was "but a toy coach the other day," as familiar and comfort

    able as "the cradle in which they were born." And again in that same year of 1843 he saw the laborers who were at

    work on the rails as grand figures: "men, manlike em

    ployed," fit subjects in fact for heroic sculpture. Still, his own response to the rails as a domain for travel was not to

    feel at home with them or to see along them the pos

    sibility of great art, and his diversion was not to look out the window at the "dreamlike" picture at all, but rather to immerse himself in books?French novels, he ad

    mitted?as the dream sped past.

    The French novelist Gustave Flaubert, on the other

    hand, read neither the fiction of his compatriots nor the

    essays of the American Emerson while aboard. "I get so bored on the train that I am about to howl with tedium after five minutes of it," he complained in 1864, adding that he stayed up all night before a trip in order to exhaust himself and thus be able to sleep through it. Just how

    perverse that procedure was, a moment's reflection will

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  • N A R

    suggest: here was a piece of travel, an adventure as it

    might have been in the old days before machines, re

    duced to an annoyance. Flying through space with great

    speed, one took flight from the flight itself. Not even the

    greatest speed conveyed one fast enough through such a


    Yet there was, Schivelbusch argues, a newer eye, one

    eager to leave traditional travel behind and to revel instead precisely in the speed of the new machines. A

    signal example of this is offered by the American land

    scape gardener Frederick Law Olmsted during his visit to

    England in 1850. Olmsted told of how he left the ship in

    Liverpool and?though intending to walk about the

    country?decided to complete the first leg of his journey by rail. As the train sped away from that gray city,

    Olmsted found its passage shouldered for long stretches on either side by high but green embankments. Having left America in a dun April coat, and having seen little

    verdure on the passage over or in Liverpool, Olmsted

    responded powerfully to this slanted wall of color. But he

    responded even more strongly to the vistas opened up momentarily as the train sped past breaks in the embank ments:

    Soon the road ran through a deep cutting, with only

    occasionally such depressions of its green-sodded bank, that

    we could, through the dusty glass, get glimpses of the coun

    try. In successive gleams: A market-garden, with rows of early cabbages, and let

    tuce, and peas;? Over a hedge, a nice, new stone villa, with the gardener

    shoving up the sashes of the conservatory, and the maids

    tearing clothes from the drying-lines;? A bridge, with children shouting and waving hats;? A field of wheat, in drills as precisely straight, and in earth

    as clean and finely tilled, as if it were a garden plant;? A bit of broad pasture, with colts and cows turning tail to

    the squall; long hills in the back, with some trees and a

    steeple rising beyond them;? Another few minutes of green bank;?

    A jerk?a stop. A gruff shout:

    "BROMBRO!" [Bromborough]

    This catalog of "successive gleams" represents the rise of an industrial eye as early as 1850, an eye and a prose style to match. Are we not already edging toward the cinema,

    whose own "successive gleams" soon will create a series

    of pictures which?like the images framed by the train window?are said to "move"? To be sure, once

    Olmsted's train stops he is quite happy to leave the

    lurching discontinuities of a modern style for the more

    restful order of the older one. Hence he went outside the station where his train left him and for the first time encountered the richness of an English rural spring, something the glimpses from the passenger car had not

    really prepared him for:

    There we were right in the midst of it! The country?and such a country!?green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous! We

    stood dumb-stricken by its loveliness, as blooming May?in an English lane; with hedges, English hedges, hawthorn

    hedges, all in blossom; homely old farm-houses, quaint sta

    bles, and haystacks; the old church spire over the distant

    trees; the mild sun beaming through the watery atmosphere, and all so quiet?the only sounds the hum of bees, and the

    crisp grass-tearing of a silken-skinned, real (unimported) Hereford cow, over the hedge.

    Here is the England not of J.M.W. Turner but rather of

    Constable, an England of extraordinary order. We may note in passing that this order encircles the viewer rather than passes him by; that it likewise implies a fixed view

    point rather than a moving one; that its horizon (where the

    spire appears over the trees) is a point of reference rather than a spot of temporary convergence; that the landscape is devoid of the least industrial hint; finally, that it is

    composed of stolid details rather than the vignettes of Olmsted's earlier "successive gleams." In short, it is what

    Peter Laslett has called "the world we have lost"?lost in substance due to the industrial revolution, but lost also in

    Minimally engineered, with lit

    tle attention given to obvious

    hazards, the early auto road

    twisted and dipped as it roared

    through the land.

    IyY '~? t~9

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    perceptual terms, lost because the eye proper to its recep

    tion has been lost. In Olmsted's neat counterpointing of the fluid and the fixed landscapes he discovered in rural

    England we may find implicitly inscribed the perceptual crisis of the modern era.

    This was a crisis obviously associated with the railroad. Yet the railroad was in many ways merely a transition in an even more radical transformation. The passenger, after

    all, confronted the speeding railscape only laterally: speed was not focused on the traveler, but rather flowed

    past to the side, in what might be called the eye's peripheral zone. Popular views of the railscape in the last

    century in fact appropriate very easily the canons of the

    painterly tradition, eliding speed and giving the viewer instead a kind of composed middle and far distance. Or

    they show us the train as an element in a landscape

    viewed not from within the car, but rather from the village street, the farmstead, or the wagon road. As a matter of

    daily fact, the train represented speed less as a bodily or a

    perceptual experience than as a passing phenomenon: the train moving across a fixed landscape in which the

    viewer's own position also was fixed.

    How different has been the case of the automobile, which has spawned what the National Park ranger and naturalist Edward Abbey has called the "industrial tour

    ist." Abbey uses that term to denounce the auto-fixated

    traveler who roars through the Western national parks, unable to climb out of the metal box and walk the earth? homo automobilius, as we might say. But the general Amer

    ican response to the auto was less moralistic: after all, the

    car, Warren James Belasco has reminded us in Americans on the Road, was viewed as a force which liberated the traveler from the corporate control of the railroad com

    panies, and so it opened the American landscape to the citizens in a new, exciting way. Especially in its more

    rural forms, the American road thus seemed a throwback to older, quieter times, and the fantasy that the roadscape

    was interchangeable with the landscape of the horse age was very strong indeed in America in the first three dec ades of this century. This fantasy produced, among other

    substantial markers on the land, gas stations which look like quaint cottages, overnight lodgings which look like

    peasant villages, and any number of supposed "Coaching Inns" and country tearooms.

    There were tremendous ironies here: for the auto

    mobile was an industrial advance over the train just as the train was an industrial advance over the steamboat and the

    canal. The auto, in fact, more radically altered the Ameri can eye than any previous revolution in transport had done. Travelers were no longer perpendicular to speed;

    the landscape no longer sped by laterally, beyond a win dow which might be ignored or even covered over as one went on. Instead, the speeding landscape aimed itself

    inevitably at the driver's eye, converging there with a

    kind of dynamic that in the railscape was known only to

    the engineer. We tend to forget that the car, especially in the United States, was the first complex machine that the

    ordinary citizen was given control over?a fact of special

    importance when we also recall that the car could make its

    way, willy-nilly almost, over the face of the land. While

    the necessity for an expensive, highly engineered road

    bed for the train vastly limited the train's effect on the

    landscape, and the necessity for a specially-trained class

    of engineers placed a visual and mechanical and social buffer between the average traveler and the world he or

    she was speeding through, with the coming of the car even a muddy cowpath might be attempted (if not negoti ated) and virtually anybody could take control.

    These changes showed themselves more markedly in the popular arts than in the academic ones. The pho tographs and engravings associated with rail travel easily took over the fixed aesthetics of heroic landscape paint ing, but those depicting the early roadscape show a much

    more lively, as it might be kinetic, sense of space. The road quickly became a realm of personal adventure and

    physical challenge, a landscape spreading out with con siderable dynamism in front of the windshield. It is not seen perpendicularly, nor reduced to a mere line cutting across the land, as typically the railroad was: it is instead a

    dramatic embodiment of perspective, angling off, rising and falling, twisting, inviting movement. Much of the

    challenge here may seem tame to eyes growing accus

    tomed to eight lanes of roaring traffic, backfires replaced now with the percussion of handguns. But

    a democratiza

    tion of motion was taking place as the nation switched from the rails to the roads, and as industrial tourists?

    while still seated as the land sped by?at least had some

    urgent need to keep their eyes alertly focused out through the frame of the windshield.

    And there was a kind of horror associated with this shift to the most personal of all machines, this most

    intensely personal form of rapid transport. A return to P. T. Barnum will help suggest the dimensions of that horror. Had he lived into the age of the modern auto

    mobile and the improved road, Barnum of course would have been able to make it to Fort Wayne?probably in a

    rented stretch limo?without the heroics of Mr. Anderson and the Toledo, Wabash, and Western. There would have been, so to speak, nothing to it. And yet Barnum on

    his special freight sensed exactly what the car might demand in return for its convenience, exactly how it

    might transform the landscape?or rather our experience of the landscape?even as it liberated us from the

    rigidities of corporate travel. After Barnum sent his tele

    grams and came back out onto the platform, the engineer on his train invited him to ride for a time in the loco motive. The experience quickly transformed the "grand mogul" of the previous run into a cowering, disoriented man. "It fairly made my head swim," Barnum admitted.

    "I could not reconcile my mind to the idea that there was no danger; and intimating to the engineer that it would be a relief to get where I could not see ahead, I was permitted to crawl back to the caboose." If the train demanded a new eye, one capable of catching those "successive

    gleams" which Olmsted found flitting by in England, then the auto was to demand of the modern tourist?of all

    of us, in point of fact?the ability to take the frontal assault of the land, to feel the lines of perspective drilling at our eyes with unrelenting speed. The world is no

    longer a picture, and there is no longer a caboose to crawl

    back to. D

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    Article Contentsp. 15p. 16p. 17p. 18p. 19

    Issue Table of ContentsThe North American Review, Vol. 273, No. 1 (Mar., 1988), pp. 1-72Front MatterAbout This Issue [p. 2-2]American Eye: If You Can Talk to a Guy [pp. 4-9]Fall River [p. 9-9]Foreign CorrespondenceCameras like Guns [pp. 10-13]

    The Rise of the Sunday School Movement [p. 14-14]Boats, Trains, Cars & the Popular Eye [pp. 15-19]Can This Fear of the Deaf Rose Keep God Immortal? [pp. 20-21]I Love You, Ray Chrysler [pp. 22-24]Driving His Buick Home [pp. 25-29]Going Back [pp. 30-35]Others [p. 35-35]Becoming Elaine [pp. 36-37]The Facts on the Ground [p. 37-37]Breaking the Rules [pp. 38-41]Rainfall [pp. 42-45]Isometropia [pp. 46-48]The Present CaseWordsworth in Bangkok [pp. 49-56]

    Kasper [p. 54-54]Books & AuthorsFreud la Mode [pp. 57-65]Review: A Craftsman at Play [pp. 65-67]Review: Accidental Witnesses [pp. 67-70]Review: New Voices, Familiar Accents [pp. 70-72]

    Review: Synecdoche: Brief Poetry Notices [p. 72-72]Back Matter