Moving Around, Needlessly or Not

In her anti-automobile screed of a few years ago, Katie Alvord wrote, “Coming after railroads, cars acquired what Wolfgang Sachs calls ‘a restorative significance’ for the rich. The train, he writes, threatened the wealthy’s sense of place and power: ‘What the common people welcomed as a democratic advance, individuals of more privileged position greeted with a snort.’ Indeed, the Duke of Wellington expressed disapproval of railroads in 1855, saying, ‘They only encourage common people to move around needlessly.’”

Few things are better, as an antidote to some damp, drizzly January in my soul, than settling into an Amtrak coach seat in the company of my fellow undesirables. I like trains. But I like travel in all the varieties of its experience and its literature.

Some time ago I began teaching a creative-writing course with travel as the focus. The students read, too, of course. The personal essay is the vehicle, so we lean heavily on my ace-boy Phillip Lopate, but we read beyond essays as well. I’ve begun with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and the commentaries by Chinua Achebe and Wilson Harris); we’ve gone on from there, at various times, to Huckleberry Finn; Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing; Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums; Basho’s book of haibuns, Back Roads to Far Towns; A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince; Linda Niemann’s Boomer (a great, though out-of-print railroad book); Eddy Harris’s Mississippi Solo, many others.

We read James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” Edward Hoagland’s “City Rat,” Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” and other essays. I’ve also used Linda Bohlis and Ian Duncan’s Travel Writing 1700-1830: an Anthology. It includes a bevy of dead white guys but also offers selections from the work of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince.

Thinking about readings for next year’s course, I picked up the 2012 The Best American Travel Writing (Jason Wilson and William T. Vollmann, made the selections) and then, online, looked back at the previous volumes, all the way to 2000. Lots of essays from The New Yorker and from National Geographic; others have been reprinted from Outside and The Atlantic. Most of the works are from upscale venues. The Best American Travel Writing is trademarked, and on the back of the book is a slogan—“First, Best, and Best-Selling.”

The series is for the most part about white writers—I see essays I’ve read and taught, and many names I admire (a smattering of Asian and Spanish surnames among them), but I see only a single black writer, Murad Kalam, from Jamaica Kincaid’s 2005 volume, among the total of some 300 selections. Travel has always been an issue for black Americans and, well, here it is again. The Best American Travel Writing has apparently not yet integrated.

The railroad comes back. Blind Willie McTell sang, in “Travelin’ Blues,” “Mister Engineer, let a poor man ride this line.”

I’ve used The Best American Poetry anthologies on a few occasions in my poetry-writing workshops. I’m interested in range, and the poetry series, under the general editorship of David Lehman, has supplied that. Writers of color are always included in the volumes. Coleridge called poetry “the best words in their best order”—but what is this best?

Some years ago I took my poetry students to hear one of the poets laureate of the United States speak at a small college, a field trip into the dark fields of the republic. (I’m being vague because I’m paraphrasing based on a memory of a certain evening several years ago.) An audience member asked, What’s the correct language for poetry? The poet laureate responded that the best language for poetry was the mix of languages itself, the different vernaculars clanging together.

Perhaps next time I’ll teach a course based on the railroad. We could read Boomer, the author’s account of her years as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific. (The paperback version’s publisher, Cleis Press, calls it “a lesbian adventure of the American West.”) We could dip into Max Haymes’s book about music, Railroadin’ Some. Could be we’d read Vollmann’s Riding Toward Everywhere, about train-hopping; we could certainly read David Peralta’s compilation of stories, Those Pullman Blues: an Oral History of the African-American Railroad Attendant. Maybe we could learn some stuff about the languages of travel.

I went through the online tables of contents for the past many years of The Best American Travel Writing rather quickly, and perhaps I was too quick. There must be other person of African descent—aside from Jamaica Kincaid and Murad Kalam—in there someplace, “some dark Ethiopian hidden in the trees,” as Alan Moorehead wrote in The Blue Nile, “watching every move you make.” I await an eagle-eyed reader to set me straight.

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