Making Tracks

In 1876, fewer than fifty years after the first railroad lines were laid in North America, Walt Whitman composed a poem—“To a Locomotive in Winter”—that captured the power and energy of the train, the machine that Whitman hailed as the “Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power-pulse of the continent.” The images in Picturing America suggest ways in which the railway transformed the American landscape and helped determine where settlements and industry would develop.

The readings selected for Making Tracks include an account of the construction of the transcontinental railroad (Nothing Like It in the World). Rising from the Rails explores the stories of the black men—and ultimately women—whose work as Pullman porters not only shaped the quality of train travel in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century but also shaped the black middle class. The cluster of poems by nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets offers views of trains and from trains. And in the novel that closes the series (Housekeeping), the aftereffects of a tragic railway accident are passed from one generation to another.

This theme is part of the Let’s Talk About It: Picturing America series. Other themes in this series include Land of Opportunity, Objects of Art, Places in the Heart, and The Work of Freedom: Individual and Communal.

Book List

  • Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose
  • Poems:
    • “I Like to See It Lap the Miles” by Emily Dickinson
    • “To a Locomotive in Winter” by Walt Whitman
    • “Window” by Carl Sandburg
    • “Night Journey” by Theodore Roethke
    • “Riding the A” by May Swenson
    • “January Chance” by Mark Van Doren
    • “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound
  • Rising from the Rails by Larry Tye
  • Riding the Rails (film), directed by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Related Picturing America Images

  • 8A—Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California by Albert Bierstadt
  • 9B—Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner 1
  • 4B—Brooklyn Bridge, c. 1919–1920 by Joseph Stella
  • 15A—American Landscape, 1930 by Charles Sheeler
  • 16A—House by the Railroad, 1925 by Edward Hopper
  • 17A—The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence
  • 18A—The Sources of Country Music by Thomas Hart Benton
  • 18B—Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Program Brochure

The project scholar was Suzanne Ozment, Ph.D., Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Professor of English, University of South Carolina Aiken.

Download the scholar's essay and recommended reading list (PDF). Please note: The American Library Association is the copyright owner of this essay and annotations. The credit lines embedded in the program materials and/or sponsor and funder logos must remain on all published (print and web) materials derived from these materials.

How-To Discussion Programming Guides

Developed to aid participants in “The Millennium Project for Public Libraries,” this how-to guide (PDF) provides basic information about developing and promoting book discussion programs.

When planning a “Let's Talk About It” program, you may wish to consult the planner's manual (PDF) for general how-to information about program format, selecting a scholar, promoting your series, evaluation, and more.