A View from the Track Up

A major physical challenge in maintaining railroad track is that just about everything being worked on is less than a foot off the ground. A little like farm labor in that respect. After much of a lifetime of blue-collar jobs, launching into writing historical novels from a working-class point of view is a reversal from that direction. Most blue collar jobs are dirty and/or noisy and/or physically laborious. Add to that–monotonous, and generally looked upon with disdain by those who have titles and don’t soil their hands. So the challenge is to look up from track level, but to remain grounded in what you know and have done. Then mix in human drama and (where appropriate) historical reference. Then upwardly seek a touch of the poetic. Or heroic.

But a trap awaits–that is, to overly romanticize the lives lived and toil performed back in times becoming ever more remote. The writer–safe behind pad and pen or typewriter or laptop–can easily fall into this, portraying the track laborer, the miner, the sailor, the cowboy, (yes, and the prostitute) of decades or a century past in tones of rose-color or sepia.

That said, I believe novelists today have mostly ditched the working class, whether of times past or present. Formulaic fiction must now follow the lead of Hollywood and TV, having us sympathize with characters who are our social and economic betters. Or draw us into a world of the totally fantastical. Or seek to be intellectually avant-garde.

A little of my own background. I graduated from the University of Maine in 1967 with a BA in history. It turns out there were too many of us graduating with similar degrees. Society didn’t need us that badly, except as conscripts to fight in Viet Nam. As an alternative I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. As one of the enlisted ranks, I learned to despise commissioned officers as a class–though not necessarily as individuals. It was a great lesson in social stratification.

On leaving the “Guard” three years later, I gravitated into blue collar jobs (not always by choice) and self-employment. Having since my early 20s wanting to write, inspired by the likes of Wolfe and DosPassos and Steinbeck–and later by Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry and Ivan Doig–I’m finally finding the time and energy to get around to it, in the onrush of the digital age and amidst the confusion of social media and the profusion brought on by self-publishing. I’m hoping it isn’t too late.


About jpkenna

Born in industrial northeast New Jersey, BA in history U. of Maine 1967, have since lived in Alaska and Washington State. Variety of jobs, including railroad and maritime industries. Currently writing 6-part historical novel series, focusing on Irish-American theme, working class point of view. Railroad construction, rise of labor movement, socialism, I.W.W., growing up in Catholic Church all featured. Books are available from Amazon and Village Books, Fairhaven (Bellingham, WA, USA)
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5 Responses to A View from the Track Up

  1. No it’s never too late and you have a captivating writing style which will guarantee your work is read.
    One of my ancestors worked down the coal mines in the North of England sometimes in a seam that was only 18 inches wide. He was claustrophobic but could get no other work. He was physically sick with fear every single day before he went down the mine but he stuck it for 30 years. They were hard times for the working classes- as they still are!

    • jpkenna says:

      A life such as that of your ancestor in North of England would indeed be hard to romanticize. Yet I have to wonder…did these miners sing the rousing, melodic songs as did the Welchmen in the movie How Green Was my Valley? There was a time when workmen sang. It wasn’t that long ago they were recording and celebrating the singing all-black track gangs of the Deep South (U.S.A.).
      And thank you for your kind, encouraging comment.

      • Yes there is a long tradition of singing in mining communities hence the magnificent Male Voice Choirs of Wales. Northumberland where my ancestors are from had wonderful folk songs about fishing, ship building and coal mining ~ the main industries at the time.
        I wrote a post recently called the Coaly Tyne about that great river and the lost industries. It has a wonderful, recent but earthy, song on it of the same name. I think you would enjoy listening to it.

  2. jpkenna says:

    Yes, I will check out both your post and the song. I confess to a weakness for work songs. In the days of grueling labor they made the hours more tolerable. But the songs were incongruous with mechanization.

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