The Literary Railroad Experience:The Production of Continuity in Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express

Geoffrey K. Bucy, University of California, Santa Barbara

Poring over maps one evening and trying to think of ‘something to write’, novelist Paul Theroux made the simple but startling discovery that ‘there was a continuous [railroad] track from my house in Medford to the Great Plateau of Patagonia in southern Argentina’.1 From this moment was born the journey that he would immortalize in his classic 1979 travelogue, The Old Patagonian Express. As important as this assertion is, no critical attention has been paid either to the question of why Theroux would build a travel narrative around a transportation infrastructure instead of a travel destination, nor to the possible reasons why this continuous track would strike him as important. But this track does more than simply guide his travels. It also serves as the fundamental experiential metaphor for continuity and connection in what Theroux feels to be the increasingly fragmented and disconnected world of air travel. In traversing the seamless continuum of geographic points between Medford and Patagonia by train, Theroux attempts to counteract a profound sense of spatiotemporal disorientation brought on by the rise of the airplane. The only problem with this project is that such a track did not exist.


Theroux claims that all travel is an ‘experiment with space’, and that the travel book is ‘motion given order by its repetition in words’.2 As will become clear, it is not easy to distinguish between Theroux’s spatial and narrative experiments. His actual railroad journey clearly provides the raw material for his literary work, but it is only in the narrative ‘order’ of the travelogue that the ‘continuous track’ emerges. Though the Old Patagonian Express is a real train, running in rural Argentina, The Old Patagonian Express that connects Boston to the tiny town of Esquel is a literary creation. It is telling, after all, that Theroux studies maps not to find a travel destination but rather to find ‘something to write’. In fact, Theroux’s discovery lies not so much in locating the continuous track on a map, but in imagining the possibility of creating such a track – if not in his own travels, then in the reading experience of the armchair traveler. An analysis of the literary structure of The Old Patagonian Express, with particular emphasis on the strategies Theroux employs to subsume, gloss over, or marginalize digressions and gaps in his own fragmented and discontinuous railroad journey, will help to draw attention to Theroux’s production of what I am calling a ‘literary railroad’. This railroad is designed to produce for the armchair traveller precisely the experience of continuity and connection that Theroux claims to be inherent in railroad travel itself. In order to understand why Theroux might be invested in this project, however, I will first turn to the feelings of disorientation that Theroux ascribes to the rise of air travel. As the juxtaposition of Theroux’s anti-airplane rhetoric and nineteenth-century anti-railroad rhetoric will make clear, the spatiotemporal disorientation that Theroux is attempting to counteract is historically predictable.

Theroux is most often read from a postcolonial perspective, as exemplified by Mary Louise Pratt’s seminal work Imperial Eyes. Pratt cites Theroux’s negative depiction of South America as evidence of his complicity in the continuation of an imperialist project inherent in nineteenth and twentieth-century Western travel writing. She argues that his depiction of the foreign as dirty, stupid, poor, and ugly is part of a realist account of the third world that is meant to counteract the tourist industry’s beautification of potential travel destinations through ‘countercommodified’ and ‘degraded […] versions of postcolonial reality’.3 While Pratt’s critique remains compelling and important, I will historicise Theroux’s work in a slightly different way. Rather than focusing on the tourist boom of the 1960s and 1970s, as Pratt does, my argument turns to the rise of commercial air travel, beginning in the 1950s, which made the tourist boom possible.4 Theroux did not travel to Patagonia to experience South American culture, but because the railway tracks happened to end there. The question that gets lost in the postcolonial reading, then, is why he found this ‘continuous track’ so important, and what he hoped to gain by traversing it.

In his study of the nineteenth-century rise of the railroad, The Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues that the emergence of a new transportation technology has disorienting effects on any traveller who must transition to new ways of experiencing movement through space and time.5 In the nineteenth century, this disorientation affected travellers who had grown up travelling by carriage or horse, and thus found the railroad’s uniform speed, mechanised power, and independence from the vagaries of landscape and weather to be unnatural and unnerving. For example, railroad passengers in the nineteenth century were forced to learn a new way of seeing. As Victor Hugo noted in 1837, the ‘flowers by the side of the road are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red and white’.6 It took time to learn how to view the landscape from a train window by re-focusing the eyes on distant objects that passed by more slowly and thus allowed for sustained visual focus.7 Similarly, Thomas de Quincey argued in 1849 that in a carriage, passengers ‘needed no evidence out of ourselves to indicate the velocity’ of travel because ‘we heard our speed, we saw it, we felt it’.8 The sensory perception of wind, water currents, and animal exhaustion that marked pre-industrial travel was linked, Schivelbusch argues, to the ‘perception of spatial distance’.9 Thus, when the train passenger was disconnected from these ‘natural’ elements, it was experienced as a disconnection from the ‘natural’ space that existed between points of departure and arrival.

  1. Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), p. 6. []
  2. Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express, p. 6 []
  3. Mary Louis Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd Edn (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 217. []
  4. Shelley Baranowski and Ellen Furlough, Being Elsewhere: Tourism, Consumer Culture, and Identity in Modern Europe and North America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), p. 9. []
  5. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), p. 37. []
  6. Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, p. 55. []
  7. Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, p. 55. []
  8. Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, p. 56. []
  9. Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, p. 11. []

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