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  • The Train, the Father, his Daughter, and her Poem: A Reading of Emily Dickinson’s “I like to see it lap the Miles”
  • Domhnall Mitchell (bio)

In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained testily (to himself in a journal) that the “invasion of Nature by Trade with its Money, its Steam, [and] its Railroad, threatens to upset the balance of man, and establish a new Universal Monarchy more tyrannical than Babylon or Rome” (Emerson, Journals 268). The association between trains, trade and industrial profits was an increasingly obvious one to make in nineteenth-century America, and it was one of the reasons why the economic elite of Amherst, including Edward Dickinson, the poet’s father, were anxious that the town whose interests they represented should be connected with the railway network then being developed and with the national market it would eventually make possible. Amherst was static at a time of regional and national growth, and its town leaders decided to advance the town “into the prosperous industrial age by placing the town on a major north-south railroad route” (Lombardo, “Edward Dickinson” 34). Already, two earlier attempts to have the railroad come there had failed (perhaps as a result of political manoeuvring on the part of neighbouring towns); 1 but in 1851, House Act number 137 of the General Court of Massachusetts incorporated “the Amherst and Belchertown Railroad Company” with Edward Hitchcock (President of Amherst College from 1845 until 1854), Edward Dickinson, Ithamar Conkey (lawyer, County commissioner, Judge of the Probate Court of Hampshire County and representative to the General Court) and Luke Sweetser (a leading merchant, Justice of the Peace, and a relative and lifelong neighbour of the Dickinsons) named among the board of trustees. On February 6, 1852, Edward wrote to his son (William) Austin: [End Page 1]

You will see by the Editor’s glorification in to-day’s “Express,” that the Am. & Bel. r.road is “a fixed fact.” The contract is made — the workingmen will be digging, in “Logtown,” next week — & we shall soon see those animating shanties, smoking through an old flour barrel, for a chimney, before many days. The boys fired a few guns — old folks looked on approvingly — and the whole thing seems so much like a dream . . .

The two great eras of the history of Amherst, are

  1. 1. The founding of the College.

  2. 2. The building of the railroad.

We here “set up our Ebeneezer.”

HaHa! ! !

(Bingham 219)

On May 3, 1853, the first locomotive ran from Palmer to Amherst, followed by the first passenger train on May 14. On the 9th of June, at the invitation of luminaries from Amherst, a trainload of enthusiasts came from New London to celebrate the connection between the towns, and a march was held, with Edward Dickinson at its head. His daughter did not participate in all of this but still observed it (appropriately enough, as I hope to demonstrate) from the woods. Here then are some of the components of the paper that follows: an alleged refugee from nineteenth-century history witnesses the arrival and celebration of the steam engine (built of iron, the raw material of the new industrial order) while situating herself within an oppositional and residual matrix of nature, personal property and the organic base of much of the local manufacturing economy:

The New London Day passed off grandly - so all the people said - it was pretty hot and dusty, but nobody cared for that. Father was as usual, Chief Marshall of the day, and went marching around the town with New London at his heels like some old Roman General, upon a Triumph Day . . . Carriages flew like sparks, hither, and thither and yon, and they all said t’was fine. I spose [sic] it was - I sat in Prof Tyler’s woods and saw the train move off, and then ran home again for fear someone would see me, or ask me how I did.


The comic tone of this passage, with its bemused description of her father’s triumph, is also (it might be thought) the tone of Dickinson’s most celebrated [End Page 2] poem on trains, P585, “I like to see it lap the Miles...

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