Railroad, consumerism, and deep time in nineteenth-century literature
Guy J. Rotella
Dr. Laura Green, Mary Loeffelholz (1958-)
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Department or Academic Unit
College of Arts and Sciences. English Department.
consumerism, evolution, geology, railroad
Railroads in literature, American ficture, English fiction
English Language and Literature
The railroad was both the icon of the Industrial Revolution and one of the most significant transformative forces of the nineteenth century. Despite this, as Herbert Sussman suggests, "With few exceptions, during the Victorian period, the machine appears in the minor works of major poets and the major works of minor poets" (2). The same can be said of prose writers. This study examines four major prose works, two written by American authors and two by British writers, in which the railroad plays more than a minor role: Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. These works represent the railroad at different stages of development. Middlemarch (1871) is set at the moment when the railroad is poised to appear on the Midlands landscape. Walden and Dombey and Son were both written within the first two decades of the train's appearance, a time period when the far-reaching effects of this new technology were first being registered. Dreiser set Sister Carrie (1900) in the mid 1890s, shortly before the automobile and the aircraft will overshadow the train as the dominant means of transportation. Despite this time spread, all four works engage with similar issues related to the train: the rise of consumerism, the disconnection of producers from consumers, the re-evaluation of self as consumer, as cargo, and as one of the masses, and the disconnections from origins that result from these circumstances. Concomitant with the public debut of the railroad was the publication of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which had far reaching effects on epistemologies and metaphysical beliefs. At the moment that the train was said to be annihilating time and space, Lyell's evidence was suggesting that the earth was much older than previously believed--millions rather than thousands of years old--and that the evidence showed geological processes to be slow and uniform over deep time rather than quick and catastrophic, as the Bible suggests. This study analyzes the interpenetration of these forces and the issues that arise from them within these works.
The coming of the railroad and the new sense of deep time foundationally challenge notions of self as these writers show. Train rides raise new sensations within the human body, demonstrate the relativity of perspective, and transport the individual en masse in a newly mobile society, one in which identities can be changed along with venues. Drawing the focus outward, both along endless horizontal rails and toward a wide range of mass manufactured goods, eventually displayed in the Crystal Palace and the subsequent department stores to which the railroads helped give rise, the railroad symbolized the superficial track of life. Lyell's theories challenged notions of self not only by raising the question of the significance of any one life on a time line of millions of years, but also by suggesting that there were no discernible beginnings or endings, leaving uncertain not only origins but ultimate destinations. Though it may seem these two forces ran along parallel tracks, their paths did cross: excavations for railway tracks exposed to the public the layers of the geological record. The four works of this study suggest that these tracks crossed in the minds of their writers as well. Thoreau and Eliot use the notion of deep time to assimilate or understand the long-term meaning of the railroad. Dickens uses the seemingly eruptive nature of the railroad to challenge uniformitarian theory, while Dreiser uses the railroad to symbolize the metonymic line of evolution.
Laurel Ann Kornhiser
Kornhiser, Laurel Ann, "Junctions : the railroad, consumerism, and deep time in nineteenth-century literature" (2010). English Dissertations. Paper 6. http://hdl.handle.net/2047/d20000136
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