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Reptiles in Literature: Thomas Wolfe, The Train and the City

Thomas Wolfe, c. commons wikkimedia.org

It was fabulous and incredible, but there it was. I saw again the million faces – the faces dark, dingy, driven, harried and corrupt, the faces stamped with all the familiar markings of suspicion and mistrust, cunning, contriving, and a hard and stupid cynicism. There were the faces, thin and febrile, of the taxi drivers, the faces cunning, sly, and furtive, and the hard twisted mouths and rasping voices, the eyes glittering and toxic with unnatural fires…They were all there as I remembered them – a race mongrel, dark, and feverish, swarming along forever on the pavements, moving in tune to that vast central energy, filled with the city’s life, as with general dynamic fluid.
And yet live, breathe and move they did with savage and indubitable violence, an unfathomed energy. Hard-mouthed, hard-eyed, and strident-tongued, with their million hard gray faces, they streamed past upon the streets forever, like a single animal, with the sinuous and baleful convolutions of an enormous reptile. And the magical and shining air – the strange, subtle and enchanted weather – of April was above them, and the buried men were strewed through the earth on which they trod, and a bracelet of great tides was flashing round them, and the enfabled rock on which they swarmed swung eastward in the marches of the sun into eternity, and was masted like a ship with it’s terrific towers, and was flung with a lion’s port between its tides into the very maw of the infinite, all taking ocean. And exultancy and joy arose with a cry of triumph in my throat, because I found it wonderful.

My research has taken me to many a dry scientific journal to learn about the effects of the fight or flight stress response. However, I run across examples in everyday literature that are usually much more interesting.

Few are as well written as Thomas Wolfe’s short story, The Train and the City.  His writing is a snapshot, which captures a moment or a scene so fantastically that you feel like you are actually there. In this particular story, he is talking about an exciting train ride he was on. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I was especially impressed with this scene from a crowd of passengers. I think he so perfectly captures the dual nature of humanity, creatures thinking with both ends of their brain.

c. 2011

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