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Jumping the Tracks: The Railroad in American Literature

Emily J Rau, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In much of American literature in the second half of the nineteenth century, the railroad and the promised construction of more railroad lines represented progress, technological advancement, and national unity. But if we refocus the lens of analysis onto communities marginalized by the advancement of hegemonic American identities, new narratives emerge, ones characterized by erasure, prejudice, and racism mobilized by the transcontinental railroad network, but also narratives of resistance and resilience on the part of those being pushed to the margins by the expansion of white supremacy across the space of the nation. With this dissertation, I contribute to the growing body of work that reckons with the histories and legacies of racism in America. By analyzing literature written on, about, and alongside the rail system in the land claimed as the United States, I work to uncover how the railroad transformed conceptions of space, place, identity, nation, and community. I begin in the eastern United States, exploring the complex space of the railcar as it moved between the North and the South, focusing on works by Charles Chesnutt and Frances Harper. From there I turn my gaze westward, tracking the railroad’s impact in the Great Plains through the work of Zitkala-Ša and Willa Cather, exposing the simultaneous removal of Indigenous children from the Great Plains and importation of white settler-colonizers into that space. I continue westward to California, analyzing novels by María Amparo Ruiz de Burton and Frank Norris to explore the contested space of California, with its layers of settlement and dispossession. The final chapter examines the work of contemporary Chinese American authors, including Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin, and Peter Ho Davies, as they recover the story of the Railroad Chinese who built the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad. In each section, I draw connections between the past and present to clearly demonstrate the continued impact of the transcontinental railroad network and the spatial politics and ideologies it promoted in the United States.

Subject Area

American literature|Geography|Ethnic studies

Recommended Citation

Rau, Emily J, "Jumping the Tracks: The Railroad in American Literature" (2021). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI28713201.