The Past is a Foreign...Something

The Romance of the Tapirs

Also, A Blog Jubilee


To celebrate the fiftieth post on this here blog* I thought I might share a sweet little story I found today. Who’s day isn’t improved when theorists of organic American nationalism, tapirs, and romance are in the mix?

Here’s the context: Francis Lieber, famed German-American jurist and political economist is writing to his BFF** Samuel B. Ruggles to tell him that he’s safely returned home from his visit to NYC. After spending most of his letter begging Ruggles to help find him a job at Columbia College because (ironically) he hates life in Columbia, South Carolina, he lightens the tone by recounting a “ludicrous scene” he saw on the train ride home.

To wit:

… My journey was plain, hum-drum, as most [railroad] journeys are. One ludicrous scene I witnessed. You may remember that the platforms in the depot at Baltimore run a long way on both sides of the rail, and are on a level with the cars, when they come in. I was in the first and stepped out; an elderly gentleman was standing near me, waiting for some one. When the next car came in, I saw a woman looking anxiously out of one of the windows; the gentleman reached toward her, and, she protruding her lips, he tried by an equally elongated mouth to catch the proffered kiss, but the cars moved on, so did the woman and consequently her lips, which she stretched longer and longer; the elderly man ran astride on the platform and as the horses moved faster than he, his mouth in turn stretched farther and farther, as one might imagine an India rubber tube would do, if it could be attracted by some magnet.

My fancy could not help imagining some enamored tapirs, stretching their trunks farther and farther toward one another, to catch the token of love, yet without success. On this whole scene moved, car, woman, man, trunks and all until they passed me and I thought I felt the old man’s funnel, formed of his mouth, brush my occiput, while the woman’s swept my nose in front. The scene was abundantly ludicrous and yet deeply touching to me, who was hastening to his wife and children. And altogether, is not that which is touching of itself, the more so for being manifested in some thing ludicrous? Is not this the secret of many of the most moving, nay harrowing scenes of Dickens’s, e.g. all those dreadful scences at Squeer’s school?? The contrast heightens the effect, as also the part that the people not caring for the ludicrous exposure show only the depth and earnestness of their feelings. …

~Francis Lieber to Samuel B. Ruggles, October 10, 1842, Francis Lieber Papers, 1830-1872, Library of Congress

Lieber, in addition for his gift for political philosophy, had, at times, a certain way with imagery. (Remind me to show you his ode to the idea of a Panamanian Canal sometime).

And before you ask: yes, the first rail cars were indeed powered by horseflesh, not steam engines. The cars even looked like stagecoaches (sorry I don’t have a pic, but use your imagination).

I’m not sure if in this case horses were just used to maneuver individual train cars around the station, or if they were actually pulling train the whole way. I suspect the latter, as Baltimore was early in railroad development. In any case, a good reminder that one of the key innovations of railroads was the lower coefficient of friction (μ) on land –- not just the application of steam power.

* 153 days old, more or less, today. Who knew? Don’t worry, I won’t mark every anniversary like a hyperactive moonstruck tween couple.

** No but really; their correspondence is quite touching.

Image cite: guppiecat, “Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus),” Flickr, CC License