Boats, Trains, Cars & the Popular Eye

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  • University of Northern Iowa

    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

    March 1988 15

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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?


    16 March 1988

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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," fi...


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