The U.S. Railroad
Historians generally agree that, of the great modern innovations, the railroad had the most far-reaching impact on major events in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly on the Industrial Revolution. There is, however, considerable disagreement among cultural historians regarding public attitudes toward the railroad, both at its inception in the 1830s and during the half century between 1880 and 1930, when the national rail system was completed and reached the zenith of its popularity in the United States. In a recent book, John Stilgoe has addressed this issue by arguing that the “romantic-era distrust” of the railroad that he claims was present during the 1830s vanished in the decades after 1880. But the argument he provides in support of this position is unconvincing.
What Stilgoe calls “romantic-era distrust” was in fact the reaction of a minority of writers, artists, and intellectuals who distrusted the railroad not so much for what it was as for what it signified. Thoreau and Hawthorne appreciated, even admired, an improved means of moving things and people from one place to another. What these writers and others were concerned about was not the new machinery as such, but the new kind of economy, social order, and culture that it prefigured. In addition, Stilgoe is wrong to imply that the critical attitude of these writers was typical of the period; their distrust was largely a reaction against the prevailing attitude in the 1830s that the railroad was an unqualified improvement.
Stilgoe’s assertion that the ambivalence toward the railroad exhibited by writers like Hawthorne and Thoreau disappeared after the 1880s is also misleading. In support of this thesis, Stilgoe has unearthed an impressive volume of material, the work of hitherto unknown illustrators, journalists, and novelists, all devotees of the railroad; but it is not clear what this new material proves except perhaps that the works of popular culture greatly expanded at the time. The volume of the material proves nothing if Stilgoe’s point is that the earlier distrust of a minority of intellectuals did not endure beyond the 1880s, and, oddly, much of Stilgoe’s other evidence indicates that it did. When he glances at the treatment of railroads by writers like Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, what comes through in spite of Stilgoe’s analysis is remarkably like Thoreau’s feeling of contrariety and ambivalence. (Had he looked at the work of Frank Norris, Eugene O’Neill, or Henry Adams, Stilgoe’s case would have been much stronger.) The point is that the sharp contrast between the enthusiastic supporters of the railroad in the 1830s and the minority of intellectual dissenters during that period extended into the 1880s and beyond.