Thoreau refers to the railroad several times in Walden. It is a symbol of progress, haste, mechanization and all the things he is rejecting by living in deliberate solitude in the woods. Thoreau asks a series of questions about the railroad. Where do we expect them to get us? Why do we want to rush frenetically around the country when there is so much to see and experience at home? Finally, he says:
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irish-man, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.
This is a startling image. People have labored and died for the railroad. Like the Great Wall of China, it is built over the bones of those who worked to build it. If we feel any common humanity with them, then the railroad “rides upon us.” The bitterness of this thought is emphasized by...
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