Between Stations: American Liberty and Locomotion from Walden to Plessy Restricted; Files & ToC

Robinson Jr., Raleigh Mixon (Summer 2018)

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“Between Stations” argues for a new approach to a familiar topic. As railway travel became increasingly available in the United States between the 1830s and the turn of the twentieth century, the nation was undergoing monumental changes: the escalation of regionalism and the Civil War, the violent extension of territorial boundaries, the expansion of the citizenry through emancipation and immigration, Reconstruction and its retreat, reunification and the rise of Jim Crow. This dissertation examines the experiences of train passengers during major conflicts over the concept of American liberty, as well as the role of the passenger in producing the sociolegal effects of the “transportation revolution.” My primary contention is that the American railroad played a much more multifaceted cultural role than annihilator of space and time or, in another well-known formulation, a “machine in the garden.” In addition to communicating passengers from station to station, railways communicated information: physically conveyed down the tracks by travelers, freight cars, and the pocket-watches of conductors, and sensorially carried across the landscape by the spectacular sights and sounds of screaming whistles, rumbling cars, chugging engines, billows of steam, and the unbroken lines of track. The “communication culture” of train travel requires a reconsideration of nineteenth-century American print culture in light of the formation of the citizen-passenger via experiences and expressions of mechanized mobility, a process that always included immobilizing encounters with the law – legislatures, judges, conductors, and corporations.

A second contention of “Between Stations” focuses on statuses in flux: we cannot think of American passengers without fully accounting for racial politics and the vital contributions of African American expressive acts to the national identity. These chapters trace the “color line” in the nineteenth-century U.S. from the abolitionist rides and writings of Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Moses Grandy, and William and Ellen Craft, to the debates over segregation in the trials of Wells v. Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern Railroad Company (1883-1887) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the appeals for liberty raised by Ida B. Wells, Homer Plessy, Charles Chesnutt, and the anonymous singers of the folksong “Railroad Bill.”

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