Paradise Interrupted: Train Whistles, Cell Phones, and Social Change

In his classic study of the pastoral ideal in American culture, The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx takes a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal as a point of departure. In his journal entry from July 27, 1844, Hawthorne describes what he observes as he sits down in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts to take in “such little events as may happen.”

Hawthorne, whose prescient metaphor for electrification we noted a few days ago, begins by describing the spot as follows:

“… a shallow space scooped out among the woods, which surround it on all sides, it being pretty nearly circular, or oval, and two or three hundred yards — perhaps four or five hundred — in diameter. The present season, a thriving field of Indin corn, now in its most perfect growth, and tasseled out, occupies nearly half of the hollow; and it is like the lap of bounteous Nature, filled with bread stuff.”

He goes on to note that, “… sunshine glimmers though shadow, and the shadow effaces sunshine, imaging that pleasant mood of mind where gaiety and pensiveness intermingle.”

Then he turns from landscape to soundscape and notes, in Marx’ summary, “the village clock, the cowbell tinker, and the mowers whetting scythes.” These sounds are not perceived as an intrusion into the peace of the idyll, rather they blend harmoniously into the whole.

Marx notes how Hawthorne is not idealizing undisturbed nature for itself, but rather nature and human culture in seeming harmony with one and for one another. Marx also observes that the journal entry is not merely about the place, it is about the human psyche as well. The subjective experience of the place is the primary object of consideration.

As we continue reading, suddenly the acoustical and psychic harmony is shattered:

“But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive — the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.”

Hawthorne then turns back to his observations and of nature, noting the leaves and “comparing their different aspects.”

This passage is notable for how often its pattern is independently repeated in the literature of the period. Marx notes similar patterns of peace and tranquility suddenly and harshly interrupted by a machine. In Walden, Thoreau likewise is disturbed from his admiration of nature by the sound of a locomotive. In Moby Dick, Ishmael is exploring the skeleton of a beached whale and suddenly the scene shifts an he is inside a textile mill. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim  are calmly floating down the river when suddenly they are rammed by a steamboat.

The specific case of the train’s piercing whistle is also recorded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Marx suspects that if we had access to all the writer’s notebooks from the period we would have countless more instances of this “little event.”

It is, on Marx’s view, characteristic of a much older literary pattern employed first by Virgil in his Eclogues. The harmony of man with nature, positioned between civilization on the one side and wilderness on the other, is troubled by the intrusion of some “counterforce” which signals the greater reality within which the pastoral ideal is played out. The same gesture is made visible in the landscape paintings of the 17th century that introduced some momento mori into the idealized scenery. It is, for example, spelled out by Poussin when his shepherds stumble upon a grave with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego.”

The trains whistle, then, symbolically signaled the larger realities that were inescapably inserting themselves into the cultural landscape. The train’s whistle signaled the arrival of Industrialization and the disordering and reordering of society that came in its wake. Emerson, for example, is explicit about this:

“I hear the whistle of the locomotive in the woods. Wherever that music comes it has its sequel. It is the voice of the civility of the Nineteenth Century saying, “Here I am.” It is interrogative: it is prophetic: and this Cassandra is believed: ‘Whew! Whew! Whew! How is real estate here in the swamp and wilderness? Ho for Boston! Whew! Whew! … I will plant a dozen houses on this pasture next moon …”

It is as if these “little events” were analogous to our asking where we were when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers were attacked. We all, at least those of a certain age, have little narratives we tell about such moments when reality harshly intruded into our idylls and signaled the changing of the times.

As I read all of this, I also wondered whether similar widely shared, equally mundane “little events” were characteristic of other periods of social change. Perhaps, the first time one heard the ring of the telephone or the engine of an airplane overhead. What about our own time? I remember when I first began to notice, in the mid-1990s, that ads on television were now prominently featuring web site addresses. Perhaps, if we’re going for jarring, we might recall the when we began to notice people talking for all to hear on their cell phones in public spaces. I can imagine a contemporary, Hawthorne-like, taking in the scenery at a park let’s say, and then suddenly startled by ones side of some too-audible conversation. (Interestingly, this very scenario was the inspiration for a recent essay by Jonathan Franzen, a literary figure of our time if ever there was one.) All of these “little events,” these little annoyances, might be, like Hawthorne’s train whistle, signifiers of shifting social worlds and mental/emotional states of being.

Any other suggestions?  What your “little events” that in retrospect were harbingers of significant cultural change? What change did they signal? What symbolic role did they play? What larger meanings did they clarify?

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2 thoughts on “Paradise Interrupted: Train Whistles, Cell Phones, and Social Change

  1. A perspective from the Urban Garden: the sound of trains on the track about three blocks south of our eleventh-floor condo creates a sense of nostalgia from my growing up days when at night I would hear train whistles as the passed through my small town. Now, in urban perspective, the traffic flow on the highway just below us, the scream of the elevated railway also just below us, and worst of all, the racecar repair place which revs up engines in the middle of the night…. white noise dulls the combined roar only a little …. the train whistle at the crossing is almost a sweet, comforting sound.

    • That is an unholy trinity of sounds to have to deal with! I can definitely see how the train whistle is absolutely charming by comparison! I suspect even Hawthorne would’ve sung the train whistle’s praise under those circumstances.

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