"Nothing Inorganic": Literary Interpretations of the Railroad


The transformation of Big Lick into Roanoke during 1880-1910 was not a novel experience. Indeed, many authors anticipated the changes that the railroad would enact upon the American landscape and culture. In his work, Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, Leo Marx provides literary insight for America's view of the railroad.

Marx begins with a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne - a writer who observed the railroad at an early stage of development. Noting the vast change that the railroad would incur, he saw that the railroad "brings the noisy world into the midst...of slumbrous peace." (23) Marx sees this observation as significant because many of Hawthorne's associations are features of the changing world itself, "[t]he train stands for a more sophisticated, complex style of life...the central device of Hawthorne's notes is to expose the pastoral ideal to the pressure of change -- to an encroaching world of power and complexity" (24). Hawthorne alluded to force that would impact America for better or worse but he made no mistake in assuming that the railroad would have a small effect. It was for later writers to decide how positive the railroad's impact should appear.

Americans fully realized the power of the railroad. Marx notes that the "machine had captured the public imagination...a kind of national obsession" (191). Not only was the railroad a national obsession but Americans presumed it stood for the very ideals of the nation in that it was, "conclusive sanction for faith in the unceasing progress of mankind. Associated with what seemed a world-wide surge of the poor and propertyless, with democratic egalitarianism, the machine is used to figure an unprecedented release of human energy in science, politics, and everyday life" (191). Americans did not associate the railroad with the impurities of England's industrial revolution but with freedom, equality and liberty. Americans welcomed the railroad with open arms. Perry Miller adds, "welcomed is too weak a verb: they grasped and panted and cried for it" (208). In the words of Guillaume Poussin, "the railroad, animated by its powerful locomotive, appears to be their personification of the American" (208). Thus, it comes as no surprise that "great" Americans such as Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson came to admire the railroad for what it was --an extension of the American soul. Their poetry and their words expressed the sentiment that in the symbolism of the railroad, "there was nothing inorganic. Instead of causing disharmony, the train is a unifying device". (221)

To complete his literary analysis of the railroad, Marx also includes Henry Adams, the most prominent dissenter of railroads mentioned in Machine in the Garden. Adams, though constructing himself as a relic of the past, sees flaws in the great machine that many writers overlook. Acting as both historian and poet, Adams describes his feelings as he encounters the two most powerful symbols in American culture the "Dynamo and the Virgin.": "The historian tells us what happened to American and to Adams, but the poet tells us how we should feel about what happened" (Marx 346). He recounts his journey through industrial England where he suddenly felt a "sense of unknown horror in...[the] weird gloom which then existed nowhere else, and never had existed before, except in volcanic centers" (Marx 346). Marx notes that Adams' location might be England but his sentiments are thoroughly American. Even in the Paris Exhibition Adams found himself, "lying in the Gallery of Machines...his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new" (Marx 347) He recognizes the differences in force of the Dynamo and the Virgin in that they represent "a clash between past and present, unity and diversity, love and power" (347).

Henry Adam's analysis of the "Dynamo and the Virgin", technology versus nature, remains significant because it adds a voice to the American conversation about technology. Most Americans saw railroads as "nothing inorganic" a phenomena that could not separate itself from the very nature of America. Railroads touched the American soul because they offered progress and change in a context many believed much purer than England or Europe. Yet, under this optimism lay several uneasy questions: what consequences come from controlling nature? How powerful is this new technology? This literature raised questions best answered by viewing Southern history.


Introduction/New South/Big Lick/Boom/Burst/New Progress/Conclusion/Works Cited