Arnold on the Rails: Railroads and Culture

Shannon N. Gilstrap, Ph.D.

The map of Arnold’s 1883-84 North American lecture tour renders a striking visual of how closely his tour stuck to the major American rail lines. According to the maps, he deviated from the rails only six times: Oberlin College, Hamilton and Aurora, NY, and Concord, Salem, and Taunton, MA. This visual reminder of Arnold’s intimate acquaintance with the American railway system affords us pause to consider the role that trains played in Arnold’s life and, more importantly for this research project, the passing role trains played in Arnold’s criticism of America after his return from the lecture tour.

Contexts - Historical and Biographical
It is easy to take for granted that 19th century travel relied heavily on the railway system’s emergence. However, some scholars consider the railway system’s establishment in England one of the Victorian era’s defining starting points. Certainly, Thackeray himself wrote, “Your railroad … starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new time and the old one…. We elderly people have lived in that prae-railroad world, which has passed into limbo and vanished” (qtd. Altick 75). The sheer speed at which the railway system expanded across England - changing the physical, social, and political landscape as it so did - became a point of nationalist pride, a sort-of guiding metaphor for the expanding British Empire and a symbol of its commercial power.

To Matthew Arnold, though, the British railway system produced mixed results. Whereas the trains brought formerly isolated towns and people into necessary contact with new ideas and cultures, thus reducing the “provincialism” that Arnold isolated as one of the Englishman’s greatest roadblocks to culture (“narrowness, one-sidedness, and incompleteness”), it also became an empty symbol of Britain’s national importance. In Culture and Anarchy he lampoons Mr. Bright who says to his constituency, “See what you have done! I look over this country and see the cities you have built, the railroads you have made...! I see that you have converted by your labours what was once a wilderness, these islands, into a fruitful garden; I know that you have created this wealth, and are a nation whose name is a word of power throughout all the world.” In response to this bombast, Arnold asks, “[W]hat are railroads but machinery?” - “machinery” being merely “external doing” of “varying value as its relations to the intelligible law of things vary” and “not absolute goods in themselves.” His famous mouthpiece Arminius in Friendship's Garland says the following about the British pride in their railway system, and the paradox at its heart:

"Your middle-class man thinks it is the highest pitch of development and civilisation when his letters are carried twelve times a day from Islington to Camberwell, and from Camberwell to Islington, and if railway-trains run to and fro between them every quarter of an hour. He thinks it nothing that the trains only carry him from an illiberal, dismal life in Islington to an illiberal, dismal life in Camberwell."

Despite misgivings about the railroad’s importance in the national consciousness, Arnold depended upon the railroad for his occupation as an Inspector of Schools (HMSI). From his earliest days as an HMSI, Arnold lamented the time he had to spend on trains. “What a filthy line is the Eastern Counties,” he says very early in his career, “and what bad carriages” (Letters I.255). In a much more forthright letter just a few days later, he writes that the constant riding on trains is “positive purgatory” (Letters I.257). So often in the letters a careful reader sees Arnold rushing through a train depot, hastily stuffing a bun into his mouth before boarding the train to meet with pupil teachers or to read examinations in a far-flung county. Such a life on the rails continued throughout Arnold’s career. It seems fitting, then, that when Arnold joined the wave of British literati lecturing in America, this first trip to North America was forged by Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie whose fortune grew in part thanks to America’s railroad. No eminent Victorian knew life on the rails more intimately than Arnold, and arguably there is no writer whose attitude towards them is more worthy of consideration.

American Trains and English Culture
Arnold never lost an opportunity to make practical application of his experiences - this is clear to any close reader of his collected works, despite what detractors in his own time and ours may say. Moreover, he often made metaphors and phrases from his experiences, which he often returned to in his work (think, for example of “deceased wife’s sister” or of the character “Bottles”). Railway metaphors can be traced all the way back to Arnold’s poetry, like the following from “The Buried Life”: “But hardly have we, for one little hour, / Been on our own line, have we been ourselves” (246, emphasis mine). Appropriately, when Arnold returned from his first lecture tour and wrote “A Word More About America” (CPW X. 194-217) he used his experiences to contrast American and English “progress” during the long 19th century, and uses the railway system to help prove his argument.

He asserts that America has solved “the political problem and the social problem,” but has not yet adequately solved the “human problem” (CPW X.198, 202). The line out of the former two, for England, has been laid by America; however, he links America and England together, at the close of the essay, as both struggling towards solving the latter (CPW X.216). Being countries linked by a common tongue and a common heritage (Arnold terms Americans the “English people of the United States” [CPW X. 203]), they are capable of learning from one another.

In one of his last essays, “Civilisation in the United States,” he takes these problems up again, and Arnold uses the American railway system for partial proof of America’s success in solving the political and social problems that England still faces. In both “A Word More About America” and “Civilisation in the United States” Arnold praises America’s lack of a class system. This lack of a rooted and rigid class system precludes America from institutionalizing inequality, as the British class system does; the result is a much more homogenous population. However, this means that Americans are by and large Philistines - the great middle class - “with the Barbarians [aristocracy] quite left out and the Populace [lower/working classes] nearly” (CPW X. 7). Although this group certainly has its faults, Arnold believes that such a large percentage of the population being so “homogenous” makes for much more equality across the nation in terms of material prosperity (either actual or potential) and means that the politicians speaking for the nation are actually adequate representatives of the population, not as in England the Barbarians controlling politics attempting to speak for the Philistines or the Populace.

This homogeneity and equality allows for greater opportunity for a greater percentage of the population, and, Arnold argues in “Civilisation in the United States,” greater accessibility to the comforts and conveniences of life for more people than in England. Whereas in England the trappings of luxurious comfort are available to and created expressly for the few whose income is “from three or four to fourteen or fifteen hundred a year” (CPW XI. 353), for “the class of people whose income is less than three or four hundred a year, things in America are favourable … society seems organized for their benefit” (CPW XI. 353-354). It is true that, unlike in England, the vast majority of Americans do not take personal cabs or hansoms; but the trains that they ride instead are much better appointed. Arnold writes, “The ordinary railway cars are not delightful, but they are cheap, and they are better furnished and in winter are warmer than third-class carriages in England” (CPW XI. 354). In consequence of such an observation, he asks, “[W]hich would [a philosopher] say was the more civilized condition - that of the country where the balance of advantage, as to the comforts and conveniences of life, is greatly in favor of the people with incomes below three hundred a year, or that of the country where it is greatly in favour of those with incomes above that sum?” (CPW XI. 354). Although Arnold wrote these lines late in his career, when in America, in one of his first letters to his sister Fan, he asserted these same sentiments: "What I like is the way in which the people, far lower down than with u, live with something of the life and enjoyments of the cultivated classes" (Letters V. 318).

Although Arnold finally concludes that the measure of a country’s civilisation does not rest solely in the greatest good for the greatest number of people, it is clear that his accolades for America’s successes in solving the social and political problems are based in part on his experiences with those elements of American society that show how America, unlike England, maximizes and celebrates is social homogeneity - at least as far as Arnold experienced and understood it. His intimate acquaintance with the railway system makes his use of trains as one example of America’s solution to one facet of the “social problem” most relevant and understandable, and this intimate acquaintance is visually rendered by the maps of his North American lecture tour.

Works Cited:
Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1973.
Arnold, Matthew. Arnold: Poetical Works. Eds. C.B. Tinker & H.F. Lowry. London: Oxford UP, 1969.
---. “Civilisation in the United States.” The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Vol. XI. Ed. R.H. Super. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1978. 350-369.
---. Culture and Anarchy. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Vol. V. Ed. R.H. Super. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1965. 85-256.
---. Friendship's Garland. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Vol. V. Ed. R.H. Super. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1965.
---. The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Vols. I & V. Ed. Cecil Y. Lang. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2001.
---. "A Word More About America.” The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Vol. X. Ed. R.H. Super. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1974. 194-217.

Some funding for the research underpinning this essay was made possible by UNG's Shott Scholarship.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to post a comment!

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold
A rare photograph of Arnold smiling