Following a revitalization that had taken place in the economic good times of the 1920s, the railroads were well equipped to handle the 1930s—or so they thought. Unfortunately, several factors led to the bankrupting of many railroad companies. Chief among these factors was the severe national economic downturn that the country experienced in the 1930s, called the Great Depression. Although the exact causes of this economic catastrophe are still debated, most historians give at least some blame to the stock market crash of 1929. The Great Depression bankrupted many individuals and sent the unemployment rate skyrocketing to a high of more than 23 percent. Hunger and poverty became common in many areas of the country. Some families who lived by railroad tracks were so desperate that they sent their children to search for dropped coal from passing trains so that they could heat their homes and operate their cooking appliances. As widespread panic and despair gripped the nation, the suicide rate rose, and millions of families migrated to other areas of the country, only to find that those areas were just as bad—if not worse. Dislocated families set up makeshift shelters on vacant lots in cities and towns. These collections of makeshift dwellings became known as Hoovervilles, after President Hoover, whom many blamed for the Depression.
Businesses were affected, too, including the railroad industry. Railroad traffic—both freight and passenger—plummeted,...
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For roughly the first half of the story, Wolfe paints an idealistic picture of a railroad engineer who has built up a silent relationship with two women. The reader is led to believe that this is going to be a positive story, since even negative events like the deaths the engineer has witnessed are temT pered by his idyllic vision. However, a little more than halfway through, the mood. or emotional quality of the story, starts to change: ‘‘Everything was as strange to him as if he had never seen this town before.’’ From this point on, the reader’s awareness of the changing mood increases as the engineer’s ‘‘perplexity of . . . spirit’’ increases. When the engineer gets to the cottage and sees the woman’s face, he—along with the reader—realizes that his idyllic vision is a lie. As the story progresses to its negative ending, the reader empathizes with the engineer’s feelings of regret, sadness, and disappointment.
The physical setting is extremely important in this story. The setting is established with the first line: ‘‘On the outskirts of a little town upon a rise of land that swept back from the railway there was a tidy little cottage.’’ The cottage is located by the tracks, but it is ‘‘swept back from the railway.’’ This distance shields the engineer from the reality of the two women’s appearance and thus becomes the means by which his mind creates the idyllic vision. If the cottage were located close to the tracks, the engineer would see the true appearance of the women. Also, the distance serves as a safety buffer for the two women. The women are comfortable waving to the engineer when he is far away but are suspicious of him when he is up close. If the setting were slightly different and their cottage were located close to the train, the two women might not have felt comfortable waving to the engineer. On a similar note, the cottage is located at a bend in the tracks, where each day, the train ‘‘swept past with a powerful swaying motion of the engine, a low smooth rumble of its heavy cars upon pressed steel, and then it vanished into the cut.’’ During this brief time, the engineer and the women only have a few moments to view each other. Just like the distance factor, the time factor plays a part in helping to build the engineer’s vision. If he had had...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: The United States is in the midst of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate reaches more than 23 percent, and poverty and hunger are common in many areas.
Today: The United States is in the midst of an economic downturn. The unemployment rate rises from a thirty-two-year low of 4 percent in 2000 to hover in the 5 to 6 percent range in 2002.
1930s: Following the widespread adoption of trucks in the United States in the 1920s, the railroads lose business on their freight trains.
Today: Although the railroads’ percentage of domestic freight traffic has decreased at a relatively steady rate since World War II, their higher percentage of freight traffic than trucks has been maintained.
1930s: During the Great Depression, many railroads fall into bankruptcy. Those that survive do so in part because of their adoption of new technologies, such as the diesel locomotive, which help make the trains faster and more efficient.
Today: In the United States, subways and passenger trains are popular options for daily commuting, although subways exist only in large cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. In Western Europe and Japan, however, railroads are experiencing a renaissance, thanks in part to the availability of technologically advanced, high-speed trains.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the various documentation that explores how Wolfe and his editors created his books and stories. Find another author—from any point in history—who has been accused of having overzealous editors and compare this author’s life to Wolfe’s life.
Research the various railroads that were operational in the 1930s. Plot all of these railway lines on a map of the United States. For each railway line, use photos, illustrations, or any other form of visual representation to depict the types of trains that were run on each line. Also, provide a short description for each railroad, which details what its primary use was and how the Great Depression affected its business.
Research the history of the toy train industry and discuss how it began. Compare the decline in the use of railroads to sales figures for their toy equivalent and discuss any apparent trends. Then, write a short report on the state of the toy-train industry today.
In the story, the engineer witnesses several deaths on the railroad tracks during his many years of service, although he is initially able to cope with them through his optimism. Research the psychology of death and dying and discuss at least two coping mechanisms that people may use after they have witnessed a violent death.
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Wolfe’s From Death to Morning, which includes ‘‘The Far and the Near,’’ was adapted as an unabridged audiobook in 1997. It is available from Books on Tape, Inc.
Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life was adapted as an audiobook in 1995 under the title Look Homeward, Angel. It is available in two parts from Books on Tape, Inc.
Wolfe’s Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth was adapted as an audiobook in 1996 under the title Of Time and the River. It is available in two parts from Books on Tape, Inc.
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What Do I Read Next?
Unlike ‘‘The Far and the Near,’’ which features an unnamed railroad engineer, the majority of Wolfe’s longer works employ autobiographical characters, like Eugene Gant. Wolfe’s first novel about Gant, Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life (1929), was set in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. The narrative follows Gant through his turbulent childhood and young adulthood, and its often negative depiction of the townspeople and the American South in general angered many residents.
Wolfe’s Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth (1935) continues the story of Eugene Gant, following him into adulthood and throughout Europe. Like its predecessor, the book...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Boyer, James, ‘‘The Development of Form in Thomas Wolfe’s Short Fiction,’’ in Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective, edited by Richard S. Kennedy, Croissant & Co., 1983, pp. 31–42, originally a paper read at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 8, 1982.
DeVoto, Bernard, ‘‘Genius Is Not Enough,’’ in Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973, pp. 75, 77–78, originally published in Saturday Review of Literature, April 25, 1936, pp. 3–4, 13–14.
Evans, Elizabeth, ‘‘From Death to Morning, The Hills Beyond and the Short Novels,’’ in Thomas Wolfe, Frederick Ungar...
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