The Mainly Annual
EastWesterly Review/Postmodern Village
Notes on the 16th Annual Postmodern Village
Conference and Hobo-Hagiography
by E.W. Wilder
“The train has certain advantages.”
This from a well-meaning but altogether wet-behind-the-ears Assistant
Professor (of “Cultural Studies,” no less) on the planning
committee for the 16th Annual PostmodernVillage conference. At my age,
being stuck with committee work is a bit like the weather: occasionally
unexpectedly pleasant, sometimes frightening, but, in the end, inevitable
and utterly outside the control of any given individual.
This was a genuine, and no doubt heartfelt, proposal by my junior colleague
on how to deal with the enormous numbers of proposals actually submitted
to us by desperate municipalities. Our situation was completely unprecedented,
as siting the conference is usually a tangled mess of ISDN lines, insurance
riders, and, afterwards, promises never to return.
But times, you may have noticed, are bad. Very bad.
saddest plea was a glossy, full-color proposal from Detroit. None of
us on the committee were cruel enough to tell the already beleaguered
Motor City that the presence of a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand
broke, drunk, destructive intellectuals was liable to further strain
the taxed police and fire-fighters of the former Capital of Industrial
Production and cost them money instead of providing a modest boost.
Besides, none of knew if it was proper to get a rabies shot before we
went in order to protect us from the wild animals that are reclaiming
the town or a tetanus shot to protect us from the ever-encroaching rust
of abandoned factories.
So, when the aforementioned and innocently disarmed academic floated
the idea that we hold the conference on Amtrak, the other committee
members pounced on the innovative and egalitarian nature of the idea,
extolling its perceived Guthrie-esque proletarianism and low carbon
I failed to point out the noise and the constant motion. I failed to
mention the fact that the romantic images of life on the rails are just
that, and that as people versed in the figurative and trained in demystification
we should know better. I failed to say these things, consumed as I was
in shading the armpit of a particularly elaborate and perhaps scandalous
doodle in the margins of my agenda. And so, it was decided, contacts
were made, fees and tickets purchased, and the conference held on the
Of Class and Klassiness, a Primer
The first thing we discovered was that America's much-ignored class
system was, indeed, alive and well and government-enforced on Amtrak.
Rather than a Populist Dreamland, the rail system, patterned as it is
on the private lines of old, maintains a plebeian and disempowered coach
class, topped by several tiers of sleeper-car classes (no irony that
these classes are “sleepers”). These latter all have the
same access to perks and powers, but among them have vast disparities
in actual accommodations.
The cost, at any rate, kept attendance down, tweaked I'm sure by the
poor economy. Representatives from state colleges and universities were
few and far between, with their tax-bases cracked and crumbling, and
those from the private schools were there mainly in order to keep up
their institutions' rankings on the Best Colleges lists. It was clear
all attendees were personally and professionally stunned by cutbacks,
lost in the deserts that are now their endowments.
Having said all that, the train food wasn't too bad, and the views,
while appropriately industrial-wasteland, were at least as fascinating
as the papers themselves.
The three medical emergencies were not our fault, I'm sure, and the
complimentary local sparkling wine on the Coast Starlight did tend to
go to our heads a bit. Only one of us was actually asked to leave the
train, and special thanks to Klamath Falls for accepting what is our
version of a released prisoner from Gitmo. I will have to say, though,
that those George Eliot scholars just have no idea how to hold their
Instead of the usual three days, the 16th Annual PostmodernVillage Conference
and HoboLand Expo stretched to ten, with conference-goers getting on
and off the Conference Car at points convenient for or of interest to
them. Beginning in Newton, Kansas (Amtrak, despite the large number
of rails and massive traffic in grain, doesn't stop in Purewater) at
3:00 in the morning, a core group of 20 boarded the Southwest Chief
headed for Chicago.
Midwest, as always, was lovely, subtle, and at times tedious, but the
first three paper presentations made up for most of Illinois. Chicago
gave us a bit of a layover, and we lost two attendees somewhere beneath
the Sears (now Willis) Tower, but we gained 15, a pattern we'd continue
on the Capitol Limited, which took us all the way to DC.
As you'll read below, our papers ironically mirrored the sad trip through
the Rust Belt, but the Alleghenies were stately, despite the fact that
the Amtrak chicken was dry.
the Crescent at DC for the trip to New Orleans were 25 more, having
had a few detrain in the Capital, and the kudzu-covered route inspired
many an essay into Southern Culture, some of which will no doubt appear
next year. The Viewliner train did cause some confusion as to who was
bunking with whom during the “breakout” sessions, but once
we redirected Stan Wankey back to his own room, the consternation died
The number of conferees who decided just to stay in New Orleans, many
of them for good, was a bit embarrassing for the organizers, not that
we blame them: papers delivered over chicory coffee and beignets at
Cafe Du Monde are just delicious.
Taking the Sunset Limited from New Orleans through Texas and on to LA
proved three things: 1. I'm allergic to Texas. 2. Texas is full of trash.
3. There's a whole hell of a lot of Texas out there. However, our journey
there did allow us to get through the bulk of the papers, as the view
became monotonously scrubby and mesquite after a while.
Coast Starlight, which we picked up in LA, has already been mentioned,
but it did give us an opportunity to take a few “view breaks”
on our way up to Seattle. We decided to set up the conference shop in
the quite agreeable Parlour Car, the last bit of the storied El Capitan.
Snifters of brandy notwithstanding, much was discussed. Woody. Very
In Seattle, we boarded the Empire Builder for our marathon trip back
to Chicago. Papers delivered in Glacier National Park were largely ignored
due to the distraction of the spectacular vistas, but we'll have those
available as .pdf files to conference subscribers as soon as we get
Academics are suckers for a decent view, probably because so many of
us are stuffed into interior offices of storefront satellite campuses
these days, and so relatively few actually experience the red-brick
tree-shaded quads of ancient, better times. We love a view, that is,
if we don't have to work for it, and the train was perfect for that.
But despite all the window-gazing, there was some great scholarly firepower
in evidence as well, enough to make any grant-providing agency proud
to cough up the dough.
Papers from Train 1: Southwest