Remo Ceserani

The Impact of the Train on Modern Literary Imagination

1. For some years now I have dealt, in books, articles and lectures, with the relationship, in the age of modernity, between the technical development of new means of communications and the literary imagination. Among the innovations that have deeply affected the collective sensibility and imagination of modern societies and have provoked general and diverse reactions, I have singled out those that seem to have had the strongest impact: the arrival of the train in the peaceful life of pre-modern communities, the possibility of reproducing images through the optical and chemical process of photography, and the enormously impressive changes in our visual, auditory and mental perceptions brought about by the introduction of such means of communication as the telegraph, the telephone and the wireless of the "old radio days."

In 1993, bringing to a tentative conclusion a work that had engaged me for several years, I published a book on the subject of railroad literature, titled Treni di carta.1 In that book I concentrated mainly on the literature representing trains, railroads and stations in the main European nations during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the numerous examples of texts analyzed in that book it appears clearly that the new technology of travel and transportation has had a central role in the general transformation of modern societies, their ways of production, organization of work, exchange of commodities, as well as in the material conditions of life of modern man, and his ways of feeling and living (behavior, sensibilité, mentalité, cultural models), his ways of thinking and of elaborating ideas and conceptions (ideologies). One of the main objectives of my research was to assess with a certain precision the role played by literature in that complex and delicate system of knowledge and representations, and in that intricate structure of relationships.

Following the example of some pioneering studies, such as those of Wolfgang Schivelbusch,2 I have attempted to project the phenomena of literature and the imaginary on the larger backdrop of the general reaction to the developments of the industrial revolution by the generation of intellectuals who lived at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, roughly those whom we call the romantic generation (given, of course, all the inevitable differences between English and French, German and Italian intellectuals). As we all know, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, for a large part of the countries on the Continent, it is not yet possible to speak of a true industrial revolution (which is placed by the historians in the thirties in France, in the fifties in Germany, and even later in Italy, during the last decade of this century). Yet the historical event of the industrial revolution in England has functioned, I believe, as an essential discriminating element: the life of people belonging to that generation, in all those countries, unfolded in the presence of the great event, which was taking place before the eyes of each person living at the time and was changing irrevocably the rural landscape, the economic setup, the mode of production, all human relations, and individual and social lives. Every person, even those living in distant places and who had no chance to travel to England and to see the new industrial landscape with their own eyes, heard of it, or read about it in letters, travel literature, and novels.

Besides Schivelbusch, other historians of culture and sensibility have already dealt with this subject. I will mention, among others, Hermann Glaser and Dirk Hoeges in Germany, and Jeffrey Richards and John M. MacKenzie in England.3 They have studied, with more or less strength of perception and analysis, the most remarkable effects of the irruption of the train on the customs of life, the rhythm of work and of movement from one place or one country to the other, the perception of space and time by the European populations, the American ones and, gradually, those of the other continents, in the course of the nineteenth century.

Some historians of the imaginary and the sensibility have already studied the impact that the new, exciting, cumbersome, and threatening presence of the train had on the representation of people's lives; the impact of the railroad lines on the representation of landscape; and the impact of the station on the representation of the urban reticulation of the modern cities. They have scanned a large number of texts from various European literatures: memoirs, chronicles, novels, poetry, studying the modifications produced by those texts in the thematic and formal organization of literary production of various types: lyrical, allegorico-pastoral, mimeto-realistic, or fantastic. I would like to mention, in consideration of the fact that they are particularly valuable, the works by Leo Marx on the locomotive in the American imaginary, the study of Johannes Mahr on the theme of the railroad in German poetry, and, although it has the usual limits of all the erudite works of the old, traditional schools of thematic criticism, the book by Marc Baroli on the train in French literature.4 Moreover, especially in the German publishing world, numerous are the anthologies that collect, on a thematic basis, a number of poetic, narrative, and autobiographical texts dealing with our theme, from the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

2. Let me describe, in short, the main results of my analysis of a large number of texts belonging to railroad literature of the modern age. A first conclusion to be drawn is the identification of a substantial and persistent cultural tradition represented by the locomotive, the straight lines of the railroads, the tunnels, the bridges, and the smoking stations as an unfriendly and threatening creation, which brought to the new social landscape an element of unsettlement, forced acceleration, and derangement in the external and internal life of man. This view, that was widespread among philosophers and men of letters, was in explicit contrast to the more positive and progressive ideologies that were dominant among the ruling classes, the new industrial bourgeoisie, that emerged in Europe and America during the nineteenth century.

Numerous texts, starting with the first decades of the century, represent the train and railroads as disturbing and uncanny inventions, that threaten to completely unbalance both the social landscape and the individual sensibility. It is from these texts that some very successful images and metaphors come to us: the engine as an inflamed and smoking monster, that renovates the ancient myth of Vulcan, god of fire and craftsmanship; the train that unwinds like a serpent or ejects fire and smoke like a dragon; the straight railroad lines that cut the natural landscape, perforate the mountains, violate nature; the pulling force of the engine becoming the symbol of destiny; the continuous rolling and monotonous rhythm of the wheels becoming the expression of a mechanical control of time, more disturbing than the tick tack of the clock or the clicks of the hands on the dial; the smoking sheds and yards, the shops of the engines, and the station arcades as places of desolation, confusion, damnation.

I have examined, from this point of view, a large number of texts, starting with texts by certain German romantic writers, continuing with works by Wordsworth, Thoreau, Musset, Gautier, Flaubert, Vigny, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hardy, and other Italian, German, French, English texts, ending up with a science-fiction short story by Ray Bradbury, entitled The Dragon.

And yet, I noticed, there is another cluster of images and metaphors, belonging to another cultural and literary tradition, which has developed alternatively and in opposition to (sometimes even in anticipation of) the tradition averse to the railroad. It is not rare to find texts which represent the train as a symbol of progress, of the rectilinear and rapid advancement of human societies, with the help of technology, towards the new frontiers and the conquests of modernity. From this tradition, which was also substantial, derive many of the positive connotations of the train and the railroad in literary representations: the speed of the new way of traveling, the boldness of the lines that cut across plains and mountains of Europe or of the transcontinental and transsiberian lines, the luxury and the adventurous and exotic atmosphere of the Orient-Express, the heroic labor of the engineers, the stokers, the builders of ballast and rails, the signal-men, the teams of snow shovellers. Enthusiastic poems written by writers of clear democratic and progressive tendencies, stories and songs of the West, collections of Railroadiana, songs of the Soviet revolution entitled "You, our locomotive, should never stop." It is a cultural and textual heritage that clearly belongs to that tradition.

From this second point of view, I have examined the ideological statements of the French followers of the duc de Saint-Simon, of Joseph Meyer in Germany and Carlo Cattaneo in Italy, and of the literary and poetic assertions of Heine, Andersen, Hugo, Carducci, De Amicis, Viktor von Scheffel, Maxime Du Camp, Walt Whitman and so on, including the documents of popular poetry, Western ballads, Russian songs of the railroad frontier, up to some contemporary chansonniers like Guccini or Springsteen.

 3. On the basis of these texts, I have constructed a system of semantic and metaphoric structures of the railroad imaginary of the nineteenth century. The system appears to be made up, at least at the beginning, of two opposed semantic fields, distinctly polarized, that are connected with two contrasting levels of signification and can be easily and systematically recognized in each text. Among the most evident polarities of this semantic system one can mention:

    a) the opposition, in all descriptions of the locomotive, between a natural organism endowed with animal force, handsome and well-set, on one side, and on the other side a machine made of iron, endowed with artificial force, frightful and uncanny, born in the mining depths of the earth, which uses a way of iron (Eisenbahn, chemin de fer, ferrovia, ferrocarril) for its movement and often returns to the depths of the earth through its tunnels. On one side the horse, on the other the steam-horse. From this a long series of oppositions and metaphoric images can be found in all the texts, used with positive or negative intentions that ascribe to the train engine features and attributes of an artificial and monstrous horse (internal heat and fire, nostrils puffing out steam, luminous eyes, a mane of smoke, etc.), or sometimes the features of some fabulous animal such as a dragon or even of an exotic animal such as an elephant.

    b) the opposition between, on one side, natural instruments (the throat of the birds, the wind that whispers through the trees) which emit pleasant sounds and function as communication between nature and its creatures, or some musical instruments which emit sounds that are sweet to our ears (the harp, the woodman's horn, the post horn) and, on the other side, the instrument utilized by the locomotive, shrill, inhuman, terrifying, that can even remind one (as it has reminded Andersen) of the last cry of the slaughtered hog. Moreover, there is the clanking noise of the train itself, so new and shocking that it inspired some poets and writers to try to reproduce it through onomatopoeia, in a sort of challenge and rivalry with those poems and musical pieces that have attempted to reproduce onomatopoetically the sounds of nature. It is useful to mention, in this connection, the importance, and the strong romantic suggestion, of the post horn in some famous poems by Einchendorff.

    c) the opposition between, on one side, the natural movement—slow, roaming and even tortuous—of the human being in the world (and in particular of that special embodiment of romantic man that was "der Wanderer"), or of the nimble and sprightly movement of birds, clouds, winds in the air, and on the other side, the straightforward, compelled, heteronomous movement of the train on the rails and its track, from one station to the next, through the various natural landscapes, without stopping before any obstacle. As a result of the train's movement, the travelers, motionless onlookers, see pieces of the countryside pass under their eyes, in the frame of the window, in swift succession, cut and assembled as in a motion picture.

This opposition, which turns around one of the central elements of romantic literary mythology, seems to be intimately related to the deeper and most important layers of meaning in the semantic structures of the two opposing cultural worlds. The opposition surfaces quite clearly, and I think not casually, in the countries that are more directly involved in the romantic movement. In French Switzerland, for instance, the Rousseauian theme of the educational value of the promenade in the country, or even more, the walk across the Alps, has found a convinced follower in a writer from Geneva, Rudolph Töppfer, educator, caricaturist, author of affable and popular books in which he recounts the walks taken together with his pupils in various parts of Europe. Two of his books, in which the excursions to the Grande Chartreuse and the Mont-Blanc, the Swiss cantons and the Italian slope of the Alps are recounted, bear a title which is very significant and pertains to the opposition that I have drawn, between the tortuous course of the wanderer and the straightforward course of those who prefer modern means of communication: Premiers Voyages en Zig-Zag (1843) and Nouveaux Voyages en Zig-Zag (1854).

4. In many of the texts that have the railroad world as their setting or subject the usually very complex texture of themes and images and the rhetorical and formal orchestration reveal a problematic and ambiguous combination of the messages communicated. What can be observed, from the point of view of literary methodology and theory, is this: with the passing of the years and the gradual inurement of the collective sensibility to the new industrial landscape of smokestacks, tracks, workshops, and railroad stations, the mediating function of literature, especially through autobiographic writings, narrative works and lyrical texts, becomes predominant.

It is well-known that one of the most important functions of literature (including high literature, which is comprised of texts with a strong semantic pregnancy and a very creative and meaningful internal tightness) is precisely to provide a solution of mediation and compromise to the tensions of human thinking and human discourse. The elements of exploration and reconnaissance of the real are always accompanied, in the literary textual universe, by elements of consolatory sublimation and aesthetic softening and sweetening.

The cultural and literary imaginary of the modern age has elaborated a series of thematic and metaphoric procedures and practices that have strongly functioned as a mediating factor between the two apparently irreconcilable extremes that I have sketched so far. The two different reactions to the irruption of the train and the railroad in the social and individual world are, on one side, the enthusiastic acceptance and celebration of the progressive triumphs of the new invention, and on the other side, the troubled denunciation of its evil effects on the social landscape and the individual sensibility.

I can list some of the most common practices through which literature has elaborated its "formations of compromise":

    a) the usage of the railroad setting and the images linked with trains, tracks and stations to represent some of the themes of the uncanny and to give new expressions to the fantastic mode in literature.

    b) the appropriation of the themes of the train and the railroad, and the reconciliation of the two contrasting ideological positions within a vast, analytic, and minute exploration of the psychological conditions prompted by the new social and individual reality and of the new modes of perception in many poetic works of the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. These themes can be found in many memoirs that cover the shocking events of the past with the veil of irony and nostalgia and recall bygone days and experiences, such as: the exciting atmosphere of the station; the thrilling confusion of the senses during the adventurous voyages of old days; the importance of childhood travels in the obscure storage sheds of memory; and the remembrance of the fugitive visions of country and landscape through the carriage-window. These themes are also retold in openly narrative works, belonging both to high literature and to a more popular type of production and comprising, in the end, the realistic novels of Zola or Tolstoy and the symbolist ones of Proust.

    c) the domestication of the theme of the train and of its possible alienating effects practiced by children's literature, with its classical procedures of miniaturization, personification and zoomorphic conversion, of reproductions of situations, events and protagonists in the form of childish play.

    d) the metaphoric and symbolic utilization of the railroad network, the system of points and shunts and crossings, the rituals of departure and arrival, and the brief encounters in the station halls, to express the existential condition of modern man.

5. The world of trains and railroads has not only supplied themes and metaphorical fields to the literary imaginary; it has also offered new patterns and shapes to the procedures of narration. The great, extraordinary abundance of novels and stories written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with settings and plots based on travel by train, the railroad accident, the casual encounter in a compartment, or the night spent on a sleeping car, shows that the novelist's interest in this type of story was not haphazard nor extrinsic.

I believe that the railroad world has also supplied the modern novel with a new pattern of narrative construction, a model for a serial and sequenced ordering (a "montage") of narrative situations and events. In so doing, it has replaced or refurbished other patterns of narrative construction, handed down to us by the Western literary tradition. Just think of some examples: the sea voyages, with sailing offs, landings, and shipwrecks, of the Homeric and Virgilian epics; the stations of Jesus Christ's Via dolorosa that accompanied him in the climb to the Golgotha; the castle's halls, the palace's gardens, and the town's piazzas in the novellas of Boccaccio and his followers; the open road and the inn of the picaresque novel; the coach, the drawing room, and the back garden of the sentimental novel and the modern romance; the battlefield, the ballroom and the theater box of the Bildungsroman; and the slums, dungeons, vaults, sordid city bowels, and tentacular subways of the roman naturaliste.

 I believe that, when we analyze a novel or a short story in which the train and the railroad do not only suggest a background or a theme, but become a functional and structural part of plot and narration, we must first of all take into account and carefully consider all the particular components that make up the train and the railroad system. Let me just mention some of those structural elements: the sectional, modular, adjustable and readjustable constitution of the train; the presence of a locomotive that draws and of a series of wagons that are drawn; the presence of some specialized wagons, like the tender, the mail coach, the baggage van, the restaurant, the sleeping-car, even in certain cases the chapel-car (with the possibility, therefore, that the train may sum up in itself various functions and collect in a serial way the fundamental components of a human community: the hotel, the café, the post-office, the bank, the saloon, etc.); the internal partition of the carriages, with the compartments, the corridor, etc.; the particular height of the windows, through which the landscape flees backward and is seen from an unusual perspective at an elevated angle; the rhythmic sound of the wheels due to the junctions between rails; the elaborate code to which the symbolic signals refer and the complex ritual of gestures and orders that the engineers, the conductors and even the travelers must obey; the fixed and predetermined routes of the train (with curves, straight stretches, switching, and shunting); the presence of fixed and predetermined stops for each voyage; the special structures offered by the stations for the departure and arrivals of the voyagers, the check-in of baggage, the hours of waiting, the need to eat, or to read, or to talk with friends; and the relationship between train and telegraph, whose poles are generally set up along the railroad tracks. All these elements have a potential structuring force that is often applied to the new narrative inventions of the literature of modernity.

 6. What happens with the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century? Here we have a complete reversal of the situation that I have presented so far. Literature, of course, as also in the case of production of experimental, innovative, provocative texts, continues its function as mediation between ideological stances and rhetorical wrappings of the human experience. Yet the ideological polarities and rigidities come to the fore once again. Ideological and literary imagination cooperate in giving a positive representation of the velocity of the train, the directness of the lines, the dynamic force of the locomotive. In Marinetti's Manifesto di fondazione del Futurismo of 1908, the celebration of the locomotives launched at a mad speed on the tracks is accompanied by an exaltation of the new mythic vehicle: the automobile.5 In the Manifesto of 1916 La nuova religione morale della velocitŕ (The new moral religion of velocity), the ideological attitude towards the voyage by train is completely reviewed, and we find some of the metaphors of the nineteenth century used with reversed values:

    Tortuous paths, roads that follow the sluggishness of the rivers and turn around the shoulders and the uneven bellies of the mountains: these are the laws that dominate nature. Never a straight line; always arabesques and zigzags. Modern velocity is giving at last to human life one of the characters of divinity: the straight line. 6

    Let us imitate the train and the automobile which make all that exists along the way to run at identical speeds in the opposite direction and awaken in all that exists along the way the spirit of contradiction, that is the spirit of life. The speed of the train compels the countryside across which it runs to split into two different landscapes twirling in an opposite direction.7

In the texts written at the time, from poetry to painting, to the new art of cinema, even to music (think of Honegger's symphony Pacific 231), the thematic function of the train is totally changed, the semantic structure completely renewed.

And yet all this happens when the train is not at the center of the modern experience and the collective imaginary any more. Its presence remains strong in many popular literary genres, from crime novels and movies to children books (from Edith Nesbit to Graham Greene); yet the new and quicker means of communication and transportation, the automobile, the airplane, and the spacecraft, are taking center stage. Even the old locomotive changes: without steam and smoke it becomes friendly, ecological, taciturn. The internal shape of the railroad cars, the so-called Pullman coaches, resembles more and more that of an airplane. The railroad stations become skyscrapers. In the new environment, it would be difficult for Anna Karenina to find in the mechanics and the rhythms of the train the support for the anguished stream of her thoughts, or for Valery Larbaud's A. O. Barnabooth to find in the multiplication and transitory nature of the landscapes seen from a coach window the fleeting and vanishing occasions for his cosmopolitan and decadent desires, and for both to have in the railroad and the train the objective correlative of their destiny.

Remo Ceserani



1 See Remo Ceserani, Treni di carta: L'immaginario in ferrovia: l'irruzione del treno nella letteratura moderna (Genova: Marietti, 1993) and Remo Ceserani, introduction, Strade ferrate: La tematica del treno e della ferrovia nei testi di Jules Verne, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Gabriel García Márquez e parecchi altri scrittori, by Pierluigi Pellini, Marina Polacco, and Paolo Zanotti (Pisa: Nistri Lischi, 1995) 7-34.

2  Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise: Zur Industrialisierung von Raum und Zeit im 19. Jahrhundert (München/Wien: Hanser, 1977).

3 Hermann Glaser, Maschinenwelt und Alltagsleben: Industriekultur in Deutschland vom Biedermeier bis zur Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt a. M.: Krüger, 1981); Dirk Hoeges, Alles veloziferisch: Die Eisenbahn— vom schönen Ungeheure zur Ästhetik der Geschwindigkeit (Rheinbach-Merzbach: CMZ-Verlag,1985); Jeffrey Richards and John M. MacKenzie, The Railway Station: A Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

4 Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); Leo Marx, "The Machine in the Garden," The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology, and Culture in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 113-26; Johannes Mahr, Eisenbahnen in der deutschen Dichtung: der Wandel eines literarischen Motivs im 19. und im beginnenden 20. Jahrhundert (München: Fink, 1982); Marc Baroli, Le train dans la littérature française (Paris: Éditions N.M., 1964).

5 In Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Teoria e invenzione futurista, ed. Luciano De Maria (Milano: Mondadori, 1983).

6 Marinetti 130.

7  Marinetti 135.

© 1999 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.