In 1939, Rollo Walter Brown was 59, a former Harvard professor of literature, a popular lecturer, and a dangerous man. In I Travel by Train, he recalls some of his many trips across the United States through the depths of the Depression. His work as a lecturer on literature, politics, and history took him to all corners of the country, from San Francisco to New Orleans and Atlanta, from the industrial towns of Michigan and Ohio to the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and north Texas. Wherever he went, he made a point of venturing out and trying to understand what was going on and why.
On more than a few of these trips, he seems to have found himself in conversation with some businessman, industrialist, clergyman, or other establishment figure. As Brown recounts it, at some point in each of these exchanges, he found himself accused of being a trouble-maker:
The other four smoked and looked toward the floor out in the center of the room, but their spokesman squinted at me, turned his cigar over in his mouth a time or two, and then demanded: “Say, are you a socialist?”
“Why? Does a man who believes that people ought not to starve have to be a socialist?”
“Well,” and he squinted his eyes and the whole of his big face into deeper lines as if he were trying to think and to be amiable at the same time, “it always looks a little suspicious, doesn’t it?”
Brown was born in Crooksville, a small town in the coal country of Southwestern Ohio, and though he went on to teach at Harvard and serve on the board of the MacDowell Colony, his allegiance remained with the working poor, who were hit hardest by the Depression. In many ways, I Travel by Train is a travelogue of the Depression. Brown visited coal miners in Kentucky and Ohio, striking auto workers in Flint, and share-croppers in Georgia; tight-lipped Lutheran farmers in Iowa, and boisterous oil speculators in Norman, Oklahoma. And he ventured deep into the heart of Dust Bowl country several times, offering descriptions of the relentless dust storms that bring this hard time back to life:
When I reached over to turn on the light I had a sudden taste of earth that was not unlike the taste of clay I had known since youth. I sneezed. Then I noticed a strange furry feeling in my ears.
It was eight-thirty.
I walked in bare feet to the southeast window and looked out. In the east there was not so much as a place for the sun. The reddish-gray wall was everywhere, though apparently thinner, more nearly translucent, when one looked straight up toward a sky that might be clear. Off to the south there seemed to be a stream of water in a mist, with reddish flat-land just beyond. In the stiff wind, the clouds of thick dust and thinner dust followed one another slowly. At a moment when visibility was fairly high I saw that my stream was a low, white stucco building, and that the flatland was the long red roof of another just beyond.
I happened to put my hand to my head. My hair was as gritty as if I had been turning somersaults in a sandpile. I lifted a bare foot. The bottom of it was covered with clean-looking dust. I touched a protected window-sill. It was so thick with dust that I could have made a topographical map on it. I walked over to the dresser where a bell-boy had put a pitcher of ice-water when I arrived. Red dust had been sliding down the inner sides of the pitcher until there was a stretch of land entirely around the body of water.
Even though I Travel by Train depicts a rough time and more than a few scenes of grim conditions, Brown’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic. He’s always pointing out someone refusing to give up, whether it’s a woman who works nine months a year on cotton farms to pay for one quarter’s study at a small Oklahoma college or Ben Cable, an Illinois farmer and sculptor, or a young Texas coed he catches a ride with:
The driver confessed that she herself had been awake all night, but for a different reason. Her fiance had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. She had been unable to sleep at all. And now that she knew he was going to live, she did not want to sleep. It was so good to be alive that she had to stay awake and enjoy the experience. She had invented the necessity of this trip just to participate in the great brightness of the day and the easy rhythm of gliding over low rolling hills that afforded long vistas. In a world where so many people give the wrong reasons for everything they do, her profound joy and unaffected frankness were so startling and so beautiful that I sat in a kind of enraptured amazement and listened all the way.
I Travel by Train is also worth reading if you have any sense of nostalgia for the era of train travel, for every chapter offers a slice of the experience of Pullman coaches, smoking lounges, dining cars, and people jumbled together for long hours:
A man can put in a lot of time in a dining-car if he is experienced. He can order item by item as he eats, and then eat very slowly, with full pauses now and then to read two or three consecutive pages in some interesting book, and with other pauses for the passing landscape. So for an hour and a half I sat and ate lettuce salad, and belated blueberry pie, and ice-cream, and read a little, and reordered coffee that was hot, and looked out at the sea, and heard, without trying, the conversation of the two youths at the other side of the table who professed ardently to believe that their prep school had more class than either Groton or St. Mark’s.
One of them had just bought a yacht for which he had paid more than I in an entire lifetime had ever earned or at least had ever received. He felt sure that his father would be able to stampede somebody into buying several blocks of stock at a good fat advance and by so doing pay for the boat without any drain whatever upon the established treasury.
Back in the sleeping-car I grew weary of the rhythmic jungle cries, and decided to seek out a place in the observation-car. I have made the test through a dozen years, but I made it yet again with the same result: on these Boston-New York trains, as one walks through, there are more people reading books than on any other trains in the United States. It must be said also that there are more feet stuck out in the aisle, more people who glance up in disgust at you when you wish to put the aisle to other use.
Don’t bother to read the last chapter, “Panorama,” though. Brown launches into a poeto-philosophical fugue about America, progress, goodwill among good people, and other nonsense. I was reminded of the infamous last chapter of War and Peace, which has the same effect of having to sit through a lecture at the end of a memorable and delicious meal.