Strangers on the Train: McKay's "On the Road" and Spatial Poetics
Drawing from his own personal experience working as a dining-car waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, Claude McKay crafts “On the Road” which presents us with highly claustrophobic and bestial space of a dining-car. In this piece, McKay’s compressed stanzas imply a trepidation about the transgression of the train into a urban environment and then outlines the effects of such movement on those that ride and work on the rails (Cooper 78). Ever the class-conscious poet, McKay crafts a horrifying rolling microcosm of rigid class structure that surrounded him during his life.
My goal in this short analysis is to briefly highlight this class-based tension that McKay foregrounds. Particularly, I want to focus on the relation of the train’s physical space and those who work and who are changed inside of the train. In “On the Road” the train becomes a moving space that imprisons its passengers and the staff that supports it. For McKay, those “worried waiters” (4) and gluttonous passengers are subject to the train’s corrupting effects, as they become the rotten core of the machine “fearfully rocking” (1) along its course. At the conclusion of the poem we are left with a train that, though stopped, has spread its influence over those who are riding inside of it.
McKay establishes from the onset that riding on such a train is not a pleasant way to travel. Seemingly riffing off of Gothic tropes, the train is not only in precarious motion, but also claustrophobic. Inside of the train “impatient people” are “jammed in line for food” (2) while the waiters are desperately attempting to satiate their patrons’ hunger:
And worried waiters, some in ugly mood,
Crowding into the choking pantry hole
To call out dishes for each angry glutton
Exasperated grown beyond control
From waiting for his soup or fish or mutton. (4-8)
The pantry where the worried and overwhelmed waiting staff are serving is so small that it is choking. It is a restrictive space, disrupting the normal airway of service that could exist if not for the horde of angry gluttons.
We, too, feel the pressures of such tight spaces. McKay does not allow us a moment to rest as we read these lines; there are no full stops in the verse until we are pushed past the choking hole of the pantry and into the hands of the expecting gluttons waiting for his three choices of train fare. As we read, we are forced to inhabit not only the tight spaces between these rocking and knocking cars of the train, but also its huddled mob of passengers. Doing so, we become just as exasperated and worried as those that have to work and wait inside of the cars. Textually and figuratively then there is not breathing room here and we are given no reprieve until the train arrives at its station.
Along with the gloomy interior of the train, we must also notice how McKay establishes the relationship between those that ride inside of it. Within the train there are no individuals, but rather two distinct groups: those that are compelled to serve and those that demand service. Such a hierarchy highlights the stark division that occurs within the train; the demands of the served on those who are compelled to serve are unjust. The tightness of the train’s interior becomes a byproduct of the social inequality of those that ride and work on the rails. We must notice, as well, the particulars of McKay’s wording. These are not normal patrons waiting for food, but gluttons. They demand not subsistence, but excess. These hungry patrons strain the worried waiters to their limits, forcing some to adopt more “ugly moods” as they are forced to meet the demands of a ravenous body of impatient and ever-hungry gluttons (4). Each group is reduced to their bare lives, no longer distinctly singular, they embody their roles completely, becoming breathing caricatures of a stark class division. The train then becomes not just a method of transport, but a focused example of larger class politics and inequality.
This relationship between the waiters and gluttons bleeds over even as each group disembarks from the tight interior of the train cars. When we finally reach the station and as the train’s engine stops, the gluttons are now labeled as passengers who are able to “lightly” hop from the choking interior of the train (11). For these bodies of excess, the time on the train was a brief moment of inhumanity, not a permanent state. They are no longer the heavy bodies crowding impatiently in tight spaces, but are now given the freedom to lightly hop from the rails and into cabs or tram-cars as they return home (11-12). The waiters, however, are physically sapped of energy—they are “weary, listless, glum” as they disembark (13). Instead of returning home, they spend “their tips on harlots, cards and rum” (14). For those that serve the gluttonous masses there is no happy return home. They cannot shed their roles from the train, they are still waiters. Unlike their patrons, they are not made lighter as they disembark, but become heavier, slower, and listless. Stumbling off of the train and burdened by their service, the waiters disappear into the vice-filled streets of the city.
“On the Road” then demonstrates McKay’s representation of space and that specific space’s influence on those that are forced to inhabit it. The interior of the train does not allow room to breathe for either readers or passengers. McKay forces us into these tight spaces, pushing us past the two distinct groups that are forced to work and ride along the rails. We watch as the gluttons are able to recover themselves as they disembark—not effected by the space they were forced to occupy—but we cannot follow them. Like the waiters, we too are affected by the train. Even after we are released from the train’s interior, we are not able to reconcile the stark hierarchy that its tight choking train cars built around us. McKay leaves us at the station watching as two distinct groups either return home or disappear into the night in search of release. The train’s engine may have stopped, but its effects seep out into the urban, echoing out into the streets.
Cooper, Wayne F. “The Early American Years, 1912-1919.” Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987. 63-102.