Edward Tenner

By Michael Freeman. Yale Univ. Press. 264 pp. $39.95

Read Time:
2m 44sec

In 1990, century-old paintings by the oncecelebrated English sporting artist George Earl reappeared on the market. Going North and Going South, showing wealthy Londoners thronging the King’s Cross and Perth railway stations at the beginning and the end of the season in Scotland, had followed the sad but common downward trajectory of Victorian society art: they were discovered in the disco lounge of a Liverpool pub.

In universities, railroads likewise have an equivocal reputation. For most academics outside the field of economic history, they are too important and too accessible to be theoretically interesting. Even economic historians have misgivings. In the 1960s, Robert Fogel argued that other transportation technologies, especially canals, could have promoted growth equally effectively. In cultural studies, one major book appears each decade or so, such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1979) and Jeffrey Richards and John M. McKenzie’s The Railway Station (1986).

Freeman’s book is the best blend of solid scholarship and sumptuous production yet. An Oxford University geographer, he portrays the railroad as one of the most radical and rapidly introduced discontinuities in the everyday life of the United Kingdom. The very establishment of a line was socially disruptive. Each road needed its own act of Parliament authorizing the surveying and forced sale of private property to the new company—a minor social revolution that initially mobilized landowners and tenants against the invaders. Cartoonists depicted railroads as voracious monsters swallowing the countryside (in contrast to the modern view of the train as the environmentally preferable alternative to the automobile). Some early surveyors had to work surreptitiously, using darkened lanterns at night, and one company hired a prizefighter to carry its surveying instruments.

Trauma soon yielded to fascination as landscapes little changed since the Middle Ages were transformed. Artists and poets found that railroads could blight nature, but they could also accentuate the picturesque. Lines afforded panoramic views of monuments such as Durham Cathedral. Viaducts added graceful rhythmic punctuation to landscapes, while tunnels evoked the darker side of Romantic sublimity. As Freeman observes, J. M. W. Turner’s stunning Rain, Steam, and Speed (1845) both celebrates the dynamism of the railroad and suggests its apocalyptic power.

Commerce and culture changed too. Fresh fish and beef arrived overnight in London from Scotland, and copies of Darwin’s newly published Origin of Species sold like hotcakes at Waterloo Station. Meanwhile, cheap tickets were bringing long-distance travel to the masses for the first time. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace, excursion trains attracted throngs of rural families. The companies’ fare structure, Freeman suggests, helped integrate the working class into British society, especially as third-class amenities improved. But railroads also helped fragment social space. Even as they were creating the original middle-class suburbs around London, their new construction spawned domino-like waves of social displacement.

No 20th-century innovation changed everyday life as radically and permanently as railroading did in the 19th. Neither aviation nor atomic energy could compare. Only now is the Internet, for better or worse, giving us a sense of how our ancestors must have experienced the early trains, including the frenzy of financial speculation. Freeman has written a clear, engaging tribute to material and aesthetic accomplishments that continue to serve millions.

—Edward Tenner


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