Thursday, June 27, 2013

An Author Looks at St. Louis Streetcars

In part of our ongoing literary look at streetcars, this passage from The Lost Boy a novella by Thomas Wolfe.  The story is a semi-autobiographical tale of Wolfe and his family's move to St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair, where his mother ran a boarding house.  The death of Wolfe's older brother, Grover is the focus of the story.  Here, Wolfe describes the sounds of the neighborhood:

He would sit there and listen. He could hear the girl next door practice her piano lessons in the afternoon, and hear the street car coming by between the backyard fences, half a block away, and smell the dry and sultry smell of backyard fences, the smell of coarse hot grasses by the car tracks in the afternoon, the smell of tar, of dry caulked ties, the smell of bright worn flanges, and feel the loneliness of backyards in the afternoon and the sense of absence when the car was gone.

I read this story in undergraduate and remembered it after I moved to St. Louis.  As best I can figure, Wolfe lived near the private right of way for the 15-Hodiamont Line, which was the last streetcar line in St. Louis, ceasing operation in 1966.  


Randall Hicks said...

If he could smell worn flanges, that's pretty amazing.

David Wilkins said...

I thought that was an interesting statement as well. I'm sure he probably smelled brake shoes, which can lead to worn flanges.

Still, being able to smell worn flanges would be a valuable skill in the street railway industry.

Anonymous said...

"Worn flanges" are more of a visible element for forming the image in the reader's mind than hidden-within-the truck-frame brake shoes...just like Bradbury described as "mossy" streetcar seats that any of us would reflexively recognize as "Insull diamond plush".

Anonymous said...

The ability to smell worn flanges sounds like the kind of thing only the late Bill MacGregor could do!

Randall Hicks said...

I must say how proud I am to see that we are now moving into the field of literary criticism. Much more academically respectable. Next up: deconstructing Lucius Beebe.