September 26, 2014

Strange bedfellows and the Amtrak writers’ residency program


Amtrak's Cardinal train pulling into Prince, West Virginia. Image via Wikipedia.

Amtrak’s Cardinal train pulling into Prince, West Virginia. Image via Wikipedia.

The names are in: Amtrak has announced the 24 recipients of its writers’ residency, which came close, but hasn’t outstripped, The Nation Cruise in the category of bizarre literary-corporate partnerships involving obsolete modes of transportation.

Among their number are Darin Strauss, Jennifer Boylan (author of She’s Not There), Katie Heaney (author of Never Have I Ever), and a surprising number of spies: Lindsay Moran is an former CIA officer and Erika Krouse is a part-time private eye (her author photo shows her peering out through window blinds, which at first looks like your standard innocuous I-like-looking-out-at-the-world shot until you realize she’s probably spying on someone).

They are also all writers with significant social media platforms and have already started to blog and tweet about the program. In other words, even if Amtrak has stepped back from the original terms of the application, in which Amtrak basically got the right to do whatever they wanted with any material submitted by applicants (and which ex-Melville intern Emma Aylor blogged about here) the fundamentals of this are still the same: Amtrak gives away rides on some of its least-booked routes and gets free publicity from a group of people who’ve demonstrated that they’re good at doing that kind of thing.

In the early round of blogging from the recipients, there’s been a lot about wi-fi, what they plan to work on, and roomettes — each writer gets their own private sleeper-car room to sleep and work in. In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson took advantage of another, quite different type of opportunity to travel the US for cheap. Stevenson rode one of the “emigrant trains,” which brought hundreds of thousands of emigrants to the West in the mid-nineteenth century. These trains charged low fares, were barer than barebones, and allowed for no dreamy solitary musing. Instead, it was a rough-and-ready introduction to the art of getting cozy with total strangers.

Here is his account of one example of this, from his memoir Across the Plains:

I suppose the reader has some notion of an American railroad-car, that long, narrow wooden box, like a flat-roofed Noah’s ark, with a stove and a convenience, one at either end, a passage down the middle, and transverse benches upon either hand.  Those destined for emigrants on the Union Pacific are only remarkable for their extreme plainness, nothing but wood entering in any part into their constitution, and for the usual inefficacy of the lamps, which often went out and shed but a dying glimmer even while they burned.  The benches are too short for anything but a young child.  Where there is scarce elbow-room for two to sit, there will not be space enough for one to lie.  Hence the company, or rather, as it appears from certain bills about the Transfer Station, the company’s servants, have conceived a plan for the better accommodation of travellers.  They prevail on every two to chum together.

To each of the chums they sell a board and three square cushions stuffed with straw, and covered with thin cotton.  The benches can be made to face each other in pairs, for the backs are reversible.  On the approach of night the boards are laid from bench to bench, making a couch wide enough for two, and long enough for a man of the middle height; and the chums lie down side by side upon the cushions with the head to the conductor’s van and the feet to the engine.  When the train is full, of course this plan is impossible, for there must not be more than one to every bench, neither can it be carried out unless the chums agree.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.