"Two trains running": The train as symbol in twentieth-century African American literature

Date of Completion

January 2001


Black Studies|Literature, American




Since the publication of Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden (1964), the train has become a well-known cultural and literary symbol for those interested in exploring American ideology. Instead of simply symbolizing an author's attitudes towards progress and technology, in the works of twentieth-century African American writers, the train is, at once, a psychological, political, and spiritual symbol. Quite often, these writers use the train as a symbol through which to reflect upon what it means to be both of African descent and an American, and to suggest that the only way to keep these “two trains running” without having them wreck is an inward journey. The metaphoric possibilities associated with the train thus form fertile territory for the writer's imagination, and the persistence of the train as symbol demonstrates it on-going literary value for twentieth-century African American writers interested in looking back at the various points in history where “Train America” got off track and where there is a need to imagine an alternate route for the future. ^ This dissertation provides a brief history of the African American experience of the railroad and then uses this history to examine works by an assortment of writers of what are currently termed “retrospective fictions” or “imagined histories.” Some of the texts studied include works by Faith Ringgold, Leon Forrest, Robert Hayden, Nikki Giovanni, John Oliver Killens, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Claude McKay, James Alan McPherson, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurtson, Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray and August Wilson in which the train, train history, and legendary train figures such as Harriet Tubman or John Henry serve as literary symbols. The repeated use of the train as a symbol in twentieth-century African American literature creates a sense of continuity and tradition that, though largely imagined, becomes more tangible with each repeated use of the train as symbol. Though the train has long ceased to be an important cultural symbol of the modern world, it remains a powerful literary symbol in twentieth-century African American literature. ^