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He Paves the Road with Iron Bars


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He Paves the Road with Iron Bars

"Get into the railroad car,"

wrote Waldo Emerson in 1832,

"and the Ideal Philosophy

takes place at once.

Matter seems compromised."

Emerson was a bel inconnu

who "snickered at embarrassing moments."

He had "the mouse in his chest." It was TB.

The doctor was called Dr. Frisbie.

Waldo "had no taste for comedy,"

wrote Gay Wilson Allen in the biography,

and disliked complex trope.

In Rome, he thought Pope

Gregory XVI was "millinery

and imbecility."

Nature grew slowly out

of letter

and ser-

mon and jour-

nal, as when he saw "a trail of glowing cinder

beside the track;

the hissing steam made the traveler

stand back."

Passing freight cars full of timber

"darted by like trout."

Current history,

art history,

and historiography

address material culture and see

lies and myths, "objects and stories" in a thing

such as a tea-kettle, which

by contrast is also

for Waldo Emerson a loco-

motive. Where he wrote, "Hitch

your wagon to a star,"

"wagon" may have meant "railway car"



while "trees and men whiz by

you as fast as the leaves of a dictionary."

Harriet Martineau

wrote of Waldo,

"In coaches or steamboats or

any where else that

he saw people of colour

ill-used, he did what

he could and said what he thought."

Yet Duane

Coltharp calls Emerson's train

"a celebration of capitalist power."

This detail

can be found through



/English/ Archive/Journals/ESQ


I sat in my auditor's seat listening

to Laurel Thatcher

Ulrich, Cather-

ine Corman, and Jennifer

Roberts holding

forth on background to all this. I did the reading.

("Objects and stories" above is Ulrich's coining.)

Waldo had a

"bias toward the concrete,"

wrote Robert D. Richardson, Jr., in the biography;

in the subject's words, the

"din and craft of the street."

In Liverpool, he "went

to the railroad and saw

Rocket and Goliath and Pluto

and Firefly,

the vulcanian generation,"

he said in Journal Q


In this nation,

where whistles soon blew

twice a day for Waltham and for

Boston, the first engine names were Best

Friend, West

Point, and E. L. Miller,

although the cowcatcher patent,

#8996, wasn't until 1852.

As it were a house, a canal, a statue, a picture,

here in America, the railroad creates




Waldo wrote; the solid


ground of Nature

— we can't get out

of it — is stuff:

"He paves the road with iron bars";

but this material, or Commodity,

alone is "mean and squalid";

while "the mind is a steam-shop where power

is generated no matter for what uses."

And, wrote Lee

Rust Brown, "The transparency

can see


the object to

a whole of which the thing

is a fragment,"

as Carlyle was shown the railway cars:

rolling stock: flatbeds, passengers, cabooses —

flanged vehicles along

a stream of worker song

all day "for the sugar in my tay"

by the destitute. "These are our poems," Carlyle said.

Indeed by 1849 Waldo

under duress

of writing lecture and essay

himself surmised

he had on the terrain

of Nature become a train:

"I am a literary runner and Lyceum Express."

Caroline Knox

He Paves the Road With Iron Bars

Verse Press

In line 29, the phrase, "objects and stories" is part of the subtitle of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book The Age of Homespun (New York, 2001). Sam Knox provided a midrash on Commodity.

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