More than a means to an end: the train as the locus of human interaction in the fiction of Thomas Wolfe

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Author: Joseph Bentz
Date: Annual 2012
From: Thomas Wolfe Review(Vol. 36)
Publisher: Thomas Wolfe Society
Document Type: Essay
Length: 5,545 words

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Trains, train stations, and the sounds of distant train whistles fill the pages of Thomas Wolfe's fiction and grip the minds of his characters. Throughout his novels and short stories, Wolfe devotes hundreds of pages to scenes of his protagonists, Eugene Gant and George Webber, traveling up and down America and around Europe on trains. Wolfe describes trips from North Carolina to St. Louis, Boston, New York, Richmond, Charleston, and elsewhere. His characters travel on trains across Germany, France, and England. Within cities they ride on subways and commuter trains. For Wolfe, most often these train rides are not simply a means of getting a character from one place to another, as they would be for many novelists. Instead, the central action of the story often happens on the train. Such is the case in the opening chapters of Of Time and the River, the focus of this essay, in which Wolfe needs to move Eugene Gant from North Carolina to Boston, with a quick stop in Baltimore to see his father in the hospital. Most writers would have devoted several paragraphs or perhaps several pages to that journey. Wolfe gives Eugene nearly ninety pages on the train, in a scene that Maxwell Geismar has called "very likely the longest train ride in literary history" (205-06).

Because the train plays such a central role in Wolfe's writing, generations of Wolfe scholars have sought to explain its significance. Many scholars emphasize the grand, and sometimes grandiose, themes the train represents. Richard Walser writes that the train in Wolfe "is symbolically diverse, more massive than the albino whale, more vivid than the single-toned crimson A ..." (12). He adds that Wolfe, "a physical giant of a man, used [the train] to symbolize verities as substantial in dimensions and colorations as he was himself; among them, America, freedom, time, destiny" (12-13). Walser also says the train symbolizes "America's virility and strength" (7) in some places in Wolfe's work and Eugene's "escape from [his] hometown" (5) in others.

Michael Everton argues that, in the long opening train sequence in Of Time and the River,


   the passage of the train from Altamont to Boston becomes America's
   initiation to modernization. The first of the major thematic
   movements in the text, this transition from rural South to the
   industrialized North is a journey through the history of American
   progress. (45)

A more recent Wolfe scholar, Jennifer Kolb, writes that, in The Web and the Rock,


   the train closes the distance between George's foundational Old
   Catawba and what exists for him as uncharted territory to the north
   and the east. Though rooted in a small southern mountain town,
   George ultimately transcends the limitations imposed on him by the
   physical geography of the region, steadily progressing toward a
   more nuanced "geography of the spirit." (79)

These are helpful ways of analyzing the train and capture important aspects of this key symbol. But one element that seems strangely lacking in most of these analyses is what happens on the train itself. Wolfe's train scenes do not simply show a panorama of America outside the train, nor are they simply a means by which a character escapes one place in order to be conveyed to another place. Instead, the hundreds of pages-Wolfe devotes to characters interacting inside the train cars themselves make that space one of the most important settings in the whole Wolfe canon.

What happens inside those train cars brings together two of Wolfe's literary preoccupations: the pain of loneliness versus the complications of intimacy. One way to view the emotional landscape of Wolfe's fiction is to see it as a spectrum, with deep, almost physically palpable loneliness on one end, and volatile and sometimes smothering intimacy on the other. His major characters often fling themselves from one extreme to the other, and back again. Deep loneliness makes them ache for human connection, but they dread the entrapments of oppressive family relationships, vacillating friendships, and unstable, sometimes combustible romantic attachments.

One place where balance can be achieved between the extremes of loneliness and intimacy is on the train. Those train cars bring people close together for hours in an atmosphere that makes it natural for them to hold long conversations, eat together, smoke together, and drink together. The setting pushes away loneliness, but the resulting intimacy has one big advantage over the close relationships that so often go haywire in the regular world: train relationships have a defined ending point. That expiration is neat and prescheduled. It need not be accompanied by arguing, drama, or blame. The train pulls into the station. Everybody gets off. They go their separate ways. The encounter is over. The ideal relational space of the train, situated between painful loneliness on one end and messy intimacy on the other, might be illustrated with this spectrum:


Loneliness      The Train               Intimacy
(Painful)      (Ideal Social Space)    (Complicated, Stifling)

Even the train station, the setting of many scenes in Wolfe's fiction, plays an important role in this emotional tug-of-war between loneliness and intimacy. The emotional encounters he shows in these departure scenes may be uncomfortable and embarrassing for the characters involved, but at least a definite and dignified ending is possible. The final good-bye is never far off. The train is always about to depart. The heightened emotions of these train platform scenes emphasize the protagonist's longing for the emotional and relational relief the train provides. For the Wolfe protagonist, entering the train is entering into the ideal space for human interaction. He is able to connect to other human beings while maintaining the dignity of self-containment. It is no wonder his characters feel fully alive in such a setting. It is no surprise Wolfe returned to that setting again and again.

Travel in the "Golden Age" of Trains

For Americans of the present generation, who are more likely to equate travel with either the social isolation of the automobile or the cramped spaces and security indignities of the airplane, it may take a little work to conjure up the friendlier days of what train buffs call the "Golden Age" of train travel, from about 1900 to 1940. One reason for the large number of trains in Wolfe's narratives is that this mode of transportation was pervasive during his lifetime. Train scholar H. Roger Grant offers these statistics:


   In 1900, the nation's 1,224 railroad companies operated 193,346
   route miles of trackage and carried 576,831,000 passengers. (The
   country's population stood at only 76 million.) Expansion
   continued. America's network of steel rails reached its zenith in
   1916, with an impressive system of 254,037 route miles, thus making
   the national map of these steam carriers resemble a plate of wet
   spaghetti. Also, in 1916, the country saw the heyday of electric
   interurban railways: 15,580 route miles of inter-city "trolley" or
   "juice" lines laced the nation, particularly in New England, the
   Midwest, Texas, and California. Passenger volume hit the one
   billion mark in 1912, and this upward trend generally continued
   until the Great Depression. (xi)

Trains were everywhere in North America, and while the accommodations on board varied widely, many railroad companies emphasized making the train ride as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. The smoking cars, dining cars, and library cars were places for socializing, reading, and relaxing. A 1938 brochure from the New York Central Railroad, for instance, describes the "rich simplicity and ultra-modern conveniences" of the 20th Century Limited--the celebrated streamliner that ran between New York and Chicago:

A telephone system facilitates dining car reservations or the ordering of food from room service. Concealed radio amplifiers in the observation and dining cars inform travelers of the latest world events and together with a record-changing phonograph furnish after-dinner music when the dining car is magically metamorphosed into a night club. ... A rust, grey and white octagonal barber shop enables busy executives to detrain with no delay, conscious of the same grooming obtainable in a good hotel. Valet and maid are on call, and a train secretary saves time by preparing rush letters or assembling the notes of a speech to be used at destination. Greater privacy is possible than ever before since each passenger is in possession of his own room, there being no open berths on the train. (qtd. in Grant xviii; ellipsis in orig.)

Not all of Wolfe's train scenes are suffused with such luxury, but the physical comfort and pampering of passengers, along with the ease of socializing with others on the train, help create Wolfe's romanticized outlook toward this form of travel. He would agree with other writers who celebrate that era of train travel. Consider, for instance, the following passage about trains by Bill Yenne in All Aboard! The Golden Age of American Rail Travel. It sounds as if Wolfe might have written it himself:


   On the rails of America in those halcyon days of the 1920s and
   1930s travel was so reassuring and so intimate. It was not the
   unreal, soporific and precarious aloofness of a plane, nor that
   obsessive simulacrum of resort life one finds on today's ocean
   liner....

   ... Aboard a train one felt that the forces of nature themselves
   were conspiring to make sure that one was always getting nearer,
   nearer. One sensed moment to moment that one knew where one was
   going. It was only when one stepped off that one was lost again,
   and life became uncertain. (78)

Although Wolfe used trains in his fiction more than most American authors of his era, this transportation method was such an important part of American life in his day that many of his contemporaries also included it in their fiction. As Joseph Millichap points out, William Faulkner, whose forebears had built their family fortune on the railroad, includes significant train scenes in such works as Sartoris (1929), The Unvanquished (1938), and Go Down, Moses (1942). Robert Penn Warren features trains in his novels Night Rider (1939) and All the King's Men (1946). Other prominent American writers to highlight trains in their works include Ellen Glasgow, Katherine Anne Porter, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston (Millichap 719-20). None of those writers, however, felt the same affection toward the train that Wolfe did, nor did they devote to it such large portions of their novels.

What Trains Meant for Wolfe

Even though the opening chapters of Of Time and the River contain one of the longest train sequences in American literature, Wolfe originally wanted it to be even longer. After Look Homeward, Angel, one of the books Wolfe hoped to complete and publish was a novel called "K-19." The title referred to the Pullman car that regularly ran between Asheville and New York City. As David Herbert Donald described the proposed 200,000-word novel, it


   recounted the interrelated life stories of passengers traveling
   from New York to North Carolina.... The structure of the novel was
   left deliberately loose; there was no plot. Sometimes Wolfe thought
   of writing about ten passengers in detail; at other times he
   expected to deal with thirty-eight. (269)

Wolfe worked furiously on this train novel in the spring of 1932, and his editor--Maxwell Perkins--originally planned to publish it as a follow-up to Look Homeward, Angel, going so far as to prepare "dummy books, including the cover, the title page, and the first ten pages of the first chapter, for salesmen to show to bookstores" (Donald 269). However, when Perkins read portions of the manuscript over the summer of that year, he thought the quality of the book was not up to par and urged Wolfe not to publish it. Wolfe reluctantly complied. He used portions of the work in other manuscripts, including Of Time and the River, but Wolfe never published his train novel.

In The Story of a Novel, Wolfe describes the agony he felt when he and Perkins worked to cut the opening train sequence in Of Time and the River from more than 100,000 words to less than 30,000. "My spirit quivered at the bloody execution," he writes. "My soul recoiled before the carnage of so many lovely things cut out upon which my heart was set, but it had to be done, and we did it" (77).

Wolfe continued to write about trains throughout the rest of his life. As important as the train was to him, it makes sense that part of its significance lies in the big themes that scholars often cite, such as the vast sweep of America, the movement from the rural South to the industrial North, Eugene's "escape" from his hometown, and so on. Those themes, however, do not account for the vast number of pages devoted to the interactions of characters inside the train cars. If the train mainly symbolized "escape," for instance, one might expect numerous scenes with characters getting on and off trains, but the novels would not need a cumulative total of hundreds of pages dealing with those characters on the trains. The train in Wolfe is not simply a device for getting someone from Point A to Point B, nor is it important only in terms of the American landscape it reveals as it traverses the nation.

To understand how important the social space of the train itself is for Wolfe's protagonists, it may help to look at examples of how Eugene Gant veers between intense loneliness at one extreme and the complications and torments of intimacy on the other. Many examples of these extremes could be cited, but two that illustrate it well appear soon after Eugene finally ends his long train ride in Of Time and the River and settles into life in Boston. One page after the train pulls into the station, Eugene feels a "mad fury" that is pervaded with loneliness: "It is to see a million men, a million faces and to be a stranger and an alien to them always." He realizes that "from that moment on, his life, more than the life of any one that he would ever know, was to be spent in solitude and wandering.... From this time on--save for two intervals in his life--he was to live about as solitary a life as a modern man can have." He finds this intense loneliness "astonishing because he never seemed to seek out solitude, nor did he shrink from life, or seek to build himself into a wall away from all the fury and the turmoil of the earth" (90).

Eugene does form intimate relationships, but that intimacy almost always leads to such outcomes as humiliation, embarrassment, and emotional turmoil. One example of a romantic encounter that goes bad is Eugene's relationship with Genevieve Simpson, a girl he meets through his Uncle Bascom in Boston. She lives with her mother and brother, and they welcome Eugene into their home. Eugene likes Genevieve, but he very quickly begins to undermine the relationship: "A mad exultancy arose in him: the old desire returned again to throw a bomb into the camp, in order to watch its effect ..." (196). He toys with Genevieve and her family by telling them exaggerated and scandalous stories of his own family in order to coax out the truth of the scandals in theirs. This "game" goes on for months before it falls apart in embarrassment and regret: "And now that the affair was ending, he was at last ashamed of the part he had played in it, and of the arrogant contempt with which he had regaled himself at the expense of other people" (208).

The turmoil in which Eugene finds himself whenever he tries to form intimate bonds with anyone is not limited to romantic relationships. Friendships and relationships with parents and siblings also lead to endless complications, as we see throughout Of Time and the River and also Look Homeward, Angel. One example is Eugene's friendship with Francis Starwick. The section of Of Time and the River that introduces Starwick as Eugene's closest friend reveals that Eugene is aware of his difficulty connecting:


   Why was it that, with his fierce, bitter, and insatiate hunger for
   life, his quenchless thirst for warmth, joy, love, and fellowship
   ... he grew weary of people almost as soon as he met them? Why was
   it that he seemed to squeeze their lives dry of any warmth and
   interest they might have for him as one might squeeze an orange,
   and then was immediately filled with boredom, disgust, dreary
   tedium, and an impatient weariness and desire to escape so
   agonizing that it turned his feeling almost into hatred? (274)

Nevertheless, he does form a close friendship with Starwick. Eugene loves the times he spends drinking, walking, and debating with this fellow Harvard student:


   With what fierce joy he welcomed those long walks together in the
   night, along the quiet streets of Cambridge. ... What other
   pleasure, what other appeasement of his mind and sense had been so
   complete and wonderful as that which came from this association as,
   oblivious of the world, they carried on their fierce debate about
   all things under heaven.... (275)

But like most of Eugene's other close relationships, this one is destined for shambles. Much later in the novel, when both men are in France, Eugene ends an argument with Starwick by calling him a "dirty little fairy" and then grabbing him by the throat and slamming him "against the facade of a building with such brutal violence that Starwick's head bounced and rattled on the stone." The force of the blow "knocked Starwick senseless: his hat went flying from his head, his cane fell from his grasp and rattled on the pavement with a hard, lean clatter" (779). In the next chapter, Eugene calls Starwick his "mortal enemy" (783).

Off the train, then, the extremes of loneliness on one hand or strangling, chaotic relationships on the other are always a threat, but on the train, equilibrium is possible. One of the best examples of this is when Eugene first enters the smoking compartment of the train on his way from North Carolina to Boston in Of Time and the River. This scene begins a chapter of about forty pages of conversations with other passengers. For many travelers, spending time in a smoking compartment chatting with other passengers would be nothing more than a routine way of passing the tedious hours until the train reaches its destination, but for Eugene Gant, it is an ideal set of circumstances. Even before Eugene speaks a word to anyone, the text describes his feelings this way: "It seemed to him that the glorious moment for which his whole life had been shaped, and toward which every energy and desire in his spirit had been turned, was now here" (35).

What causes such a profound sense of well-being to spring up in him? The narrator details each element of this ideal combination of factors in the opening paragraphs of this chapter. One element is the opportunity to converse with older, more experienced men. But whereas in a different setting such an opportunity might have brought out Eugene's insecurities, in this setting he feels optimistic and confident. The train--its rhythm, its luxury, its movement--lends to that self-assurance. Here is how the narrator describes the psychological effect of the train's movement on the young man:


   The boy felt the powerful movement of the train beneath him and the
   lonely austerity and mystery of the dark earth outside that swept
   past forever with a fanlike stroke, an immortal and imperturbable
   stillness. It seemed to him that these two terrific negatives of
   speed and stillness, the hurtling and projectile movement of the
   train and the calm silence of the everlasting earth, were poles of
   a single unity--a unity coherent with his destiny, whose source was
   somehow in himself. (35)

That rhythm and movement of the train, combined with the "rich furnishings of the pullman, and the general air of affluence of these prosperous men" fill Eugene "with such a swelling and exultant joy as he had never known before" (35, 36). He feels "a rending and illimitable power in him as if he could twist steel between his fingers," and he feels "an almost uncontrollable impulse to yell into the faces of the men with a demonic glee" (36).

All that emotion, and yet all he has done is step into the smoking compartment! Fortunately for Eugene, he does not yell into the men's faces with demonic glee. Instead, he sits and talks with them. They discuss baseball, politics, and business. Some of the men are from Eugene's hometown, and they ask about different members of his family. The conversation with Mr. Flood and the others reaches a deeper level of intimacy as Eugene answers questions about his brothers Steve, Luke, and especially his dead brother Ben, who had worked for Mr. Flood. The recollection of Ben brings to Eugene's mind the memory of Ben's giving him an engraved pocket watch for his twelfth birthday. This birthday scene is fully rendered within the chapter. To the rhythm of the moving train, the conversation has led Eugene into probing memories of his past, the fleetingness of time, and "this strange and bitter miracle of life" (52).

Part of what makes these conversations intense and yet bearable for Eugene is that he is aware even as he is engaging in them that they won't last long. The relationships with these men will not linger, will not get bogged down in any of the usual complications of intimacy. He shares these hours with them, chasing away loneliness for the time being, and then everyone will move on. Here is how Eugene's thoughts about this are rendered in the midst of these conversations:


   The trains would hurtle onward bearing other lives like these, all
   brought together for an instant between two points of time--and
   then all lost, all vanished, broken and forgotten. The trains would
   bear them onward to their million destinations....All that he knew
   was that these men, these words, this moment would vanish, be
   forgotten--and the great wheels would hurtle on forever. And the
   earth be still. (42-43)

For many travelers, whether in airplanes, or cars, or trains, their main desire is to get to their destination. The faster the traveling hours pass, the better. For Eugene Gant, the opposite is true. He loves the time on the train, but he dreads stepping off it. When the men in the smoking compartment ask about Eugene's father and tell stories about him, "a thousand living memories of his father" stir in Eugene's mind (58). But when he contemplates getting off the train for a quick stop in Baltimore to visit the dying W. O. Gant in the hospital, the thought descends on him like "a measureless weight of dull weariness, horror and disgust" (60). The only thing that makes this visit bearable is his knowledge that "the dreaded pause and interruption of his flight would last but two short days." He knows it might be his last meeting with his father, but the thought of this "hated meeting" fills him "with loathing, a terrible desire to get away from it as quickly as possible, to forget it, to escape from it forever" (60). Better to be on the train, in motion, in temporary association with others, than to be stuck in an uncomfortable reunion, even with a beloved father.

Although Wolfe's protagonists have an easier time finding emotional equilibrium on the train rather than off it, that is not to say that all the conversations and relationships established in the Pullman cars are pleasant and conflict-free. It's safe to say that no social space on earth is truly guaranteed to be harmonious for a volatile Wolfe protagonist. But on the train, even when a conversation goes sour, a character such as Eugene Gant takes solace in two elements of these encounters that prevent them from sinking to the depths of enmity so common in the relational breakdowns that take place off the train. The first element is that the train car's social etiquette requires a certain amount of personal decorum and self-control to which Wolfe's characters do not always feel bound during their arguments and scuffles in everyday life. The train car, unlike a bar or even a home, for instance, simply does not lend itself to the kind of brawling or arguing that a Eugene Gant might feel freer to engage in off the train. Even when he gets angry, he shows a measure of restraint on a train that is not characteristic of him elsewhere. His troubled encounter with Robert Weaver, analyzed below, illustrates this restraint.

The second element that keeps a check on disagreeable encounters on the train is that the characters are headed somewhere, that they are not stuck with these other people for long. The rhythm of the moving train and the hope of a shining destination help to soften any anger, hurt feelings, or insecurity that may arise. For example, on his train ride to Boston, Eugene is stung by the malicious and probably untrue gossip of young Robert Weaver, with his "restless eyes ... in whose haggard depths the incipient flashes of the madness which later would destroy him were already visible" (63). Weaver claims that the ladies of the Baptist Church have called Eugene an infidel, feel sorry for his mother, and have had the audacity to start praying for him. At first Eugene tries to brush this off as Weaver's attempt to goad him, but then he becomes genuinely angry. Given Eugene's emotional volatility, it is likely that, off the train, he might have turned his anger against Weaver in the form of an argument or a fight. Instead, despite the fact that it felt as if "the idle gossip of the other youth had really pronounced some fatal and inexorable judgment against his whole life" (66), Eugene turns his anger into hope and resolve, in part because of how the train changes his perspective of the situation:


   And seeing the lonely earth outside that went stroking past the
   windows of the train, he suddenly felt the dark and brooding joy of
   desperation and escape, and thought again: "Thank God, I've got
   away at last. Now there's a new land, a new life, new people like
   myself who will see and know me as I am and value me--and, by God,
   I'll show them! I'll show them, all right." (66)

Eugene, Robert Weaver, and their young friend Creasman go on to get drunk together and stand out on the platform at the end of the car and watch the land of Virginia pass by. "Here they are--three youths bound for the first time towards their image of the distant and enchanted city, sure that even though so many of their comrades had found there only dust and bitterness, the shining victory will be theirs" (68). The train has transformed conflict into comradeship.

For Wolfe, the train's special status in fostering interpersonal communication is not a specifically American phenomenon. It plays a similar role even when Wolfe's characters travel to Europe, and even when they don't know the languages of those nations very well. Despite any language barriers, conversations on trains bring about relational connections that go beyond words.

A good illustration of this appears late in Of Time and the River, when Eugene is in France and travels on two trains from Chartres to Orleans. He shares a compartment with three people--an old peasant, his wife, and their grouchy grown daughter. Eugene can't understand most of what the man says, and the man can't understand Eugene's French. The daughter can figure out what Eugene is saying and is irritated with her father for his lack of understanding. Significantly, however, Eugene's closest relational connection in the compartment is with the man, who cannot understand his language, rather than with the daughter, who can. Eugene offers him an American cigarette and tries to teach him to say "Lucky Strike." Later, as the old man smokes it, the travelers look out the window to see that the sun has come out. Now it is the old man's turn to teach Eugene to say, "Le soleil." Thrilled with Eugene's ability to say this, he also teaches him "la pluie" and "la terre." The daughter responds to this exchange with exasperation: "'I tell you,' the girl cried angrily from her seat by the window, 'he knows all these words. He speaks French very well. You are too stupid to understand him--that's all'" (801). For Eugene and the old man, however, the exchange of cigarettes and words has brought them together. Even after Eugene switches trains, he looks out the window to see the old man and his wife "standing on the platform looking towards him with kind and eager looks on their old faces" (802). The train has brought them together in relationship in ways that would have been difficult otherwise. If they had passed Eugene on the street or sat near him in a restaurant, they would have remained strangers. But in a train compartment, even a language barrier can be swept aside as they find ways to connect.

The Role of the Train Station

This desire to escape uncomfortable emotional entanglements plays out not only in scenes on the train itself, but also at the train station, another common Wolfe setting. Train station scenes are filled with extreme emotion, made bearable only by the fact that, like a train ride, they are predetermined to come to a definite end once the train arrives. Without that dignified end in sight, the encounters would be unbearable for Eugene.

Of Time and the River begins on the train station platform. The focus of the first two paragraphs is not on Eugene Gant or where he is going, but rather on the coming of the train itself. All those gathered at the little station feel "the thrill and menace of the coming train" (3). They "had been drawn here by a common experience, an event which has always been of first interest in the lives of all Americans. This event is the coming of the train" (3).

The ensuing scene that includes Eugene; his mother, Eliza; his sister Helen; and other friends and family shows why Eugene needs to get to the emotional tranquility of the train car and why he longs for it to arrive soon. When Eliza dangles a bit of family gossip in front of him without fully divulging the secret she is promising to tell, an exasperated Eugene shouts, "God-damn it, can we have no peace--even when I go away! ... Always these damned gloomy hints and revelations--this Pentland spooky stuff.... Who cares? What does it matter? ... I don't want to hear about it--No one cares" (7). Seeking emotional respite from Helen, he pleads, "A moment's peace for all of us before we die. A moment of peace, peace, peace" (8). Unfortunately for Eugene, Helen responds with self-pity rather than support. She says, "You're the lucky one! You got away! You're smart enough to go way off somewhere to college--to Boston--Harvard--anywhere--but you're away from it. You get it for a short time when you come home. How do you think I stand it?" (8).

As more people arrive on the platform to wait for the train or to say good-bye to family and friends, the emotional intensity of the scene only increases for Eugene. His mother embarrasses and frustrates him by growing teary-eyed and maudlin. Eugene longs to escape to the "strange and secret heart of the great North that he had never known," but he also feels the sorrow of being torn away from the "lost and lonely South" that has always encompassed him (23, 24). As the locomotive arrives, the conflicting emotions have become almost unbearable. The description of the platform crowd's supposed response to the train's pulling into the station mirrors Eugene's own thrill and terror at having reached this emotional climax:


   The locomotive passed above them, darkening the sunlight from their
   faces, engulfing them at once and filling them with terror, drawing
   the souls out through their mouths with the God-head of its instant
   absoluteness, and leaving them there, emptied, frightened, fixed
   forever, a cluster of huddled figures, a bough of small white
   staring faces, upturned, silent, and submissive, small, lonely, and
   afraid. (23)

Do most people waiting on the platform really have such an extreme response to the rather commonplace arrival of the train, or is Eugene's own emotional crisis projected onto them? The conflict within him finally erupts as the train pulls to a stop. The passage is filled with the wildly contradictory emotions that only his movement into the more poised and stable social space of the train car will fully bring into balance:


   ... a song of triumph, joy, and victory so savage and unutterable,
   that he could no longer hold it in his heart was torn from his lips
   in a bestial cry of fury, pain, and ecstasy. He struck his arms out
   in the shining air for loss, for agony, for joy. The whole earth
   reeled about him in a kaleidoscopic blur of shining rail, massed
   heavy greens, and white empetalled faces of the staring people.
   (24-25)

The coming of the train has forced the emotional conflict to its crisis, and Eugene passes through that storm of fury and joy into the sanctuary of the Pullman car.

"The Far and the Near": Finding the Proper Social Distance One of the best illustrations in Wolfe's fiction of the train's role in creating the proper social distance is his short story "The Far and the Near," published in From Death to Morning. In this story a train engineer passes the same house in his limited express train between two cities every day for more than twenty years. As he passes, he blows the train whistle, and a woman comes to the back porch to wave to him. At first she has a small child with her, and as the years go by the child grows into a young woman who also comes to the porch to wave. This daily ritual comes to represent for the engineer "something beautiful and enduring, something beyond all change and ruin, and something that would always be the same, no matter what mishap, grief or error might break the iron schedule of his days" (165).

When the engineer retires, he decides to go meet the women whose friendliness has meant so much to him over the years. Once he arrives at their house, he immediately regrets his decision. The place that from the distance of the train had seemed inviting and friendly now looks as "unfamiliar as the landscape of some ugly dream" (167). The woman's face that he had always looked forward to greeting is "harsh and pinched and meager" as she stares at him at her front door. "All the brave freedom, the warmth and the affection that he had read into her gesture, vanished in the moment that he saw her and heard her unfriendly tongue" (167). She and her daughter reluctantly invite him in, and he tries to carry on a conversation as they stare at him "with a dull, bewildered hostility, a sullen, timorous restraint" (168). He leaves heartsick with disappointment at this encounter.

The engineer had violated what made the friendly relationship work for so many years, which was that the train had brought them close, but not too close. The train had played a role similar to that of the Pullman car in Of Time and the River. Controlled intimacy, with a fixed ending point, is better, at least in the world of Wolfe's fiction, than either the loneliness or the stifling intimacy that prevails away from the train. Better to enjoy the limited relationship the train provides than to push it any direction that is too "Far or Near." Wolfe captures the essence of the fragility of the equilibrium of this kind of train relationship in another train story in From Death to Morning, "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time." In this story the young American main character becomes acquainted with a sick, old Jewish man on a train in Germany. Near the end of the trip, when the young man returns to the compartment from the dining car, he sees that the old man has died. He discovers the peaceful body just as the train is pulling into the station. He considers telling someone, but instead he decides to depart the train without saying anything:

Might it not be that in this great dream of time in which we live and are the moving figures, there is no greater certitude than this: that, having met, spoken, known each other for a moment, as somewhere on this earth we were hurled onward through the darkness between two points of time, it is well to be content with this, to leave each other as we met, letting each one go alone to his appointed destination, sure of this only, needing only this--that there will be silence for us all and silence only, nothing but silence, at the end? (113)

Works Cited

Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. Boston: Little, 1987. Print.

Everton, Michael. "American Exodus: Movement as Motive and Structure in Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River." Southern Literary Journal 30.2 (1998): 37-53. Print.

Geismar, Maxwell. Writers in Crisis: The American Novel between Two Wars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1942). Print.

Grant, H. Roger. Introduction. We Took the Train. Ed. Grant. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP 1990. xi-xxx. Print.

Kolb, Jennifer. "Bright Engines of Life: Trains and the Railroad in Thomas Wolfe's The Web and the Rock." Thomas Wolfe Review 34.1-2 (2010): 77-86. Print.

Millichap, Joseph. "Railroads." The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, People, Movements, and Motifs. Ed. Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda H. MacKethan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP 2002. 718-20. Print.

Walser, Richard. "Thomas Wolfe's Train as Symbol." Southern Literary Journal 21.1 (1998): 3-14. Print.

Wolfe, Thomas. "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time." From Death to Morning. New York: Scribner's, 1935. 98-113. Print.

--. "The Far and the Near." From Death to Morning. New

York: Scribner's, 1935. 164-68. Print.

--. Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His

Youth. New York: Scribner's, 1935. Print.

--. The Story of a Novel. 1936. The Autobiography of an

American Novelist. Ed. Leslie Field. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. 1-89. Print.

Yenne, Bill. "When Everybody Came by Train." All Aboard! The Golden Age of American Rail Travel. Ed. Bill Yenne. Greenwich: Brompton, 1989. 78-109. Print.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A331489170