For many years, the train and railroad was seen as a symbol of progress, not only in America but also in the entire world. For Henry David Thoreau this is not true, the train in his mind symbolized everything wrong with humanity: its greed, destructiveness, and its ignorance. He knew of and profited from the railroad’s good qualities, but hated and feared it for its bad. The railroad was a path to nowhere, a fiery and destructive beast, the end of agriculture and much more. For Thoreau, the railroad was also the destructor of nature and as time has shown, he was right. Although most people consider Thoreau’s view of the railroad tracks and the train to be one, this is not true. For him, the train itself and the railroad tracks were two very different things. Each symbolized different parts of humanity’s qualities.
The railroad was not all bad, even in Thoreau’s opinion, it has many good qualities, but these are not redeeming qualities. While these good qualities may soften the image of the railroad’s negative qualities, they do not absolve it. He liked the fact the railroad brought people to new places and to experience new things and in the process to have new thoughts, but he considered the railroad as way for people to go in a straight line to nowhere that one could get on and off with out a thought in their head. Thoreau understood the material benefits brought by the railroad, the food, and the pay for the farmer’s goods, books, culture, and also most other things people needed, but he considered most of these items needless things that distracted men from the pursuit of thought. He said that although it brings books in it “but down goes the wit that writes them”(Thoreau 75). He thought that even though bringing books in so people can read them is good, people should be writing their own books and thinking their own thoughts rather than reading someone else’s.
One of the most important issues concerning the railroad to Thoreau was the way in interacted with nature. He hated how the railroad had infected all of the area and disrupted the flow of nature; he scorned the thought of a boy who ran away from his uncle because he missed the city and train whistle “you couldn’t even hear the whistle! I doubt if there is such a place in Massachusetts now” (Thoreau 75). But this view was limited to the train itself. In his poem “What’s the railroad to me” (Thoreau 25), he talks about how the railroad tracks cleared areas create fields for blueberries, and the banks give homes to the swallows. Thoreau also talks about how he will “never go to see where it ends” (Thoreau 25), the railroad tracks themselves he thought were “like a cart-path in the woods” (Thoreau 25) something that was there but did not concern him and that he did not need. He considered the railroad tracks themselves to become part of nature after they were laid, rather than a constant thorn in nature’s side as the train was and continued to be over the centuries that followed.
The human cost of the railroad was just as important to Thoreau; he spoke of two costs, one that affected the body of man and one that affected the mind. Thoreau stated that the railroad was built on the backs of sleepers. Although literally the term sleepers refers to the wood that the tracks run one, sleepers was also a sub-textual term Thoreau used to refer to the workers that would not think for themselves but instead just worked to build the railroad and for the many people that had died building the railroad. Thoreau considered the two to be the same; the death of the body was just as bad, and just as destructive, as the death of the mind. “If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads?” (Thoreau 60). Thoreau thought that we chose to waste our lives away, working for unnecessary things and pleasures. Thoreau believed the effort put into the railroad and other, in his mind, unnecessary endeavors should be instead put into an effort to change the way lives are lived, and to spend more time in thought and contemplation.
However, Thoreau is a man of opposites, symbolism, and contradictions; the railroad was not the main issue he was arguing. The railroad was the symbol of something big and bold that everybody knew about. Instead, Thoreau was using the railroad as a crutch to hold up all the problems humanity has created and caused. He broke the qualities of the train into symbols, ones that paralleled the faults he found in humanity. All of Thoreau’s references to the train can be directly tied to aspects of human nature that Thoreau despised.
Thoreau says, “The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter” thus as humans have penetrated all aspects of the world, leaving none of the areas of the world untouched by human hands. Thoreau also hates the dependence men have on their technology “Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say [to the train] nay”. He continues his symbolism with:”[the railroad is like an] iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils” his reference to a mythical beast of fire and destruction, or one of the horsemen of the apocalypse could easily be construed as humans bringing about destruction and terror on themselves and those around them. He further speaks of the human rape of nature “If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends”then the elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands and be their escort”(Thoreau 76). The unspoken part is that men do not use the elements of nature for any noble end, that instead he takes what he wants without any concern for who or what he destroys.
The railroad for Thoreau was the antithesis of his ideals, it forced men to give up thinking, the train allowed them to go from on place to another far a way without a thought. The railroad in his mind destroyed nature as it was laid, but it was the train that kept the wound fresh. Thoreau considered the train to be a needless distraction in life, a purveyor of the rat race way of life; men zipping around with no concern on how they got to were they ended up. Thoreau hated the way the land, people and nature was pushed aside in order that the railroad could be laid. On this account, he was completely correct as the Midwestern Native Americans and the American buffalo could obviously attest to. But progress is a large part of the human ideal; without being able to strive for something humans rather than sitting and thinking, just sit, thus without things like the railroad and later automobiles humans would not think at all, leaving Thoreau’s purpose to fail. Even though Thoreau was correct with most of his complaints about the railroad and other aspects of humans desire for things, the larger picture is without it humans would not have become what they are today, whether this is good or bad is left up to you.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden or Life in the Woods. Dover Thrift Editions, 1995.
Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau. Ed. Carl Bode. Baltimore:
The John Hopkins Press, 1964.