There’s an Old Black Train A-Comin’

I’ve rewatched Over The Garden Wall again. This time, I watched it with two of my siblings and got to enjoy the “I hate you but thank you” experience of introducing people to something they wind up loving. It was good to be able to enjoy things with people again, and then talk about it afterwards. I’m still looking for someone who has also listened to the latest season of Friends At The Table as well, so I can talk about trains, death metaphors, and near-death experiences, but I thought I could meet at least part of that need by reflecting on death in literature here.

One of the stories about death or near-death experiences that has stuck with me the longest is An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce. I first read it in high school. It was one of the many stories included in my literature text book that we did not read or discuss in class, that I read during class time when my fellow students were still doing their classwork or reading the story we were supposed to be reading. Since I was a quick reader, I’d made a habit of foraging ahead in the book and finding things to entertain myself with during the slow hours of the day. I can’t remember a single other thing from that class, but this story stuck with me ever since. When it came up again in college, during one of my US Literature courses, I enjoyed getting a renewed perspective on a familiar story and was given a measure of how my critical analysis abilities had grown when I was able to get so much more from the story.

Anyone who has studied US Literature can tell you that there is a preoccupation with death in what is considered the “canon” of US Lit. Stories either end in death, are metaphors for death, or even worship death. I suppose a country with a history as (relatively) short as ours must make as many heroes as it can, so it makes a certain amount of sense that there was a heavy focus on “glorious death,” beyond the scope of what I’d call the normal (I can only speak for English language literature, of course, since I have studied very little other literature at length), Human obsession with leaving behind a legacy.

There are hundreds of tales of cowboys meeting glorious deaths, there’s the whole mythology around The Alamo, and then there are the many wars the US has fought that grant a certain degree of worship to anyone who died during them. Then, once you dig deeper and look at the literature about the US, you can see a whole additional layer. Much of the US’ progress into modernity and the economic powerhouse it is came at the cost of many lives. Founded on the backs of slaves, built by people from other countries who were largely seen as disposable, and then continuing to function the way it does since it’s founding at the cost of marginalized peoples. And that’s all without metioning the atrocities against the indiginous peoples of North America. It’s no wonder so much of US literature is about death in one way or another.

The only thing I’ve studied at any level of detail is trains as a metaphor for the passage between life and death. I grew up riding trains, loving trains, playing with toy trains, and enjoying model trains, so you could say this was a way to bring together two things I loved (stories and trains). I would say, thought, that this was the only thing that really interested me because of how much work history text books have done to erase the sheer cost in lives of the transcontinental railway. It’s no wonder that the people alive back when these railways were being built, back when people died daily to lay new rails and rushed railways broke with disastrous results for all those aboard that train, wrote about them as metaphors for death. It wasn’t as metaphorical back then, so it would have been an obvious allusion to make.

And that’s just literal death. Metaphorical death happened because of trains, too. Train travel was common enough that people would use it to get around, but crossing the US was still a big deal. Still expensive. So, if you decided to move somewhere far away from everyone you knew, there was a decent chance you’d never see them again. You could write them, but that also cost money and not everyone had the time necessary for such pursuits. While you would literally live on after you arrived at your destination, you might very well have figuratively died to the friends and relatives you left behind. Nowadays, such travel isn’t seen as a big deal thanks to cars, planes, cell phones, and the internet, but getting on a train to leave, possibly forever, was a big deal back in the later half of the 19th century.

Is it any wonder that trains, especially the old engines, are frequently seen as metaphors for death? It was an idea people lived with constantly for a long time, that a train might take someone away from you permanently. I can only wonder what people over a hundred years from now will be saying about us and our metaphors for death, especially as literature about and in response to this pandemic and recent political figures comes out.

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