End of the Line
With the publication of “Railroad Noir,” the latest in a series of evocative memoirs…
Georgia (Mar 7, 2011) —
With the publication of “Railroad Noir,” the latest in a series of evocative memoirs about a 20-year career as a brakeman and conductor on railroads throughout the West and Southwest, associate professor of English Linda Grant Niemann hopes she has finally gotten it all down on paper.
The 150-page, coffee table-style book of Niemann’s intimate stories and fine art-quality photographs by Joel Jensen capture the ethos of railroad life in America. It depicts the often dangerous, back-breaking work, the sense of loneliness and desolation workers face in seedy motels and honky-tonk bars, their dedication to craft, and the breathtaking vistas they see streaking by.
Niemann, who worked as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific and as a conductor for Union Pacific and Amtrak, has been telling the stories of railroad life and people every chance she can — in books and in dozens of articles, anthologies, readings and lectures. Her writings include three books: “Boomer: Railroad Memoirs” (University of California Press, 1990); “Railroad Voices” (Stanford University Press, 1998); and the current “Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century” (Indiana University Press, 2010).
“I keep hoping there’s not more,” says Niemann, who joined the KSU faculty in 1999 to teach creative nonfiction writing, a position that was tailor-made for her. “Once you turn 50, it’s kind of hard to be hanging off of boxcars, so I transitioned to sitting in a chair. I had always wanted to teach and write.”
With her recent book, Niemann thinks she has come to the end of writing about her experiences on the railroad, which, she says, have come to her in pieces. “But I had to tell the whole story.”
To complete the saga, Niemann tells the story poetically in the vivid vernacular of the railroad, capturing the romance and lore of the craft and exposing its darker side — workers’ struggles with alcoholism and other addictions, exhaustion, homelessness, and what she calls “inept and arbitrary authority.” “You don’t leave out the bad stuff.
“Most railroad literature is deliberately sanitized in that it’s written primarily for rail fans who almost exclusively are interested in the mechanics of it,” Niemann said. She believes enthusiasts have embraced her work because she brings “street cred” and reveals the human side of their common experience. In so doing, critics say she has expanded the genre and given it broader appeal. As Niemann observes, writers like Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, to whom one reviewer has likened her, penned stories that captured the craft of seafaring but also told deeply psychological human stories.
Although running off to work the railroads in 1979 was a way of escaping a poor job market and five years of “living the Santa Cruz (California) party life,” it was the best thing that could have happened, said Niemann, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1975. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise; I found my poetic subject.”
With the third book behind her, Niemann hopes to continue her devotion to the railroad and its workers with scholarly research and writing about what she believes is a movement by the industry toward “profits over people.”
The introduction to the last chapter of “Railroad Noir” describes why she has adopted her new role as scholar/advocate:
“When I think about the deskilling of the craft, the normalizing of high turnover of workers, the attack on unions and job protection funds and the blame-the-worker safety programs, I think about the bonds of craft and human satisfaction in life that railroad life used to represent. … Surely this way of life is worth fighting for.”
-- Sabbaye McGriff
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