Friday, May 05, 2023

Schivelbusch: A True Genius of Railway History

Unbeknownst to many of us, Wolfgang Schivelbusch died in Germany in March. I didn't know until this morning, when the New York Times published an obituary. Schivelbusch was what many of us dream of being: an independent scholar. As qualified as any professor, he operated free of institutional constraint, writing the histories he wanted to. It is no exaggeration to say that, were it not for his work, I might not have completed a PhD.

I first encountered Schivelbusch in the first year of my undergrad in a lecture given by David Wootton on the history of time and space as intellectual constructs. Using Schivelbusch, Wootton explained how the construction of the railways in Britain had fundamentally changed how people perceived time and space. The increased velocity of rail travel allowed people to travel further in less time. The result was a shrinking of distance. My mind was blown. 

As I delved deeper into railway history, I bought a used copy of The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, perhaps Schivelbusch's best-known work. I devoured it. It's a truly eclectic book: the chapters don't lead logically from one to the next. Whatever aspect of the railways that Schivelbusch wanted to talk about, he did. He introduced me to the cultural history of rail travel, which helped me to break away from the technical and economic narratives I had been used to. This was how people saw train travel, how they felt train travel, how they loved and feared it. Chapters 3-5, which focus on time and space, are probably more cited than any other work of transportation history (my guess, don't know if this is actually true!). I studied and wrote about Victorian railway travel as an undergrad because of his work. I ultimately fell back into railway history during my MA, albeit from a material culture and memory perspective.  

My PhD also returned to railways, but not in the way that I think Schivelbusch would have expected. Schivelbusch featured twice on my comprehensive examination reading list. The Railway Journey held up well, although I now saw how the second part really did pale compared to those first few critical chapters. Having read much more widely, I also saw how influential he had been on a generation of scholarship. I also had the opportunity to peruse Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, which focused on the advent of electricity. This was how I summarized it in my notes:

Nobody makes a book quite like Schivelbusch. It’s easy to read, but so incredibly detailed without being heavy. It makes huge claims without being complicated. As is the case in other Schivelbush work, the first chapter(s) is the crucial bit. The rest sort-of peters out. Also, and especially in the chapter on nightlife, the book could have very easily become a social history talking about the people in the night. Instead, it stays true to its focus on technology. This is important as it shows that effective books must stay on topic.

When it came time for me to write my dissertation, I focused on politics, development, and colonialism. Oddly, Schivelbusch largely rejected the first two themes in his work and he predated the third. While I did cite him (how could I not?), I largely worked around his assessment of railways. But this is how scholarship works: you contribute to a conversation, taking it in different directions and moving it forward. Without Wolfgang Schivelbusch, it is quite likely that I would never have written my contribution to that conversation.