I Wrote Significant Portions of My Dissertation on the Train (Like Other Great Writers, Apparently)

LitHub recently asked: What is it that makes trains such great writing spaces? Some might choose to write on trains, but I had no choice while writing my dissertation years ago. It was the only time I had during a jammed work week. I remember revising my introduction–many times–zipping beneath Manhattan in the 2 train. Here’s how it came out:

Imagine it’s 1871. A band of shifty men break into a classroom. An imposing round man towers over a schoolboy. The man’s right hand crumples the pages of a book. His left hand curls into a fist. The boy looks at the round man like a thief who snatches books from kids. The round man’s stout accomplice dons a half-hanging top hat and hurls the students’ textbooks out the window. Yes, textbooks. Yes, out the window. New Yorkers on the street below scatter, dodging the schooly volumes. Some books tumble in the air, others flap their pages like pigeons with broken wings, only briefly delaying the inevitable.

As one set of textbooks is tossed out, another set is delivered. These are new books that sit in a stack next to the round man. They’re labeled: “New books published by the Tammany Saints to be used in our public schools.” One of the old books falls off a student’s desk. It’s called Willson’s Reader, a literature textbook used in city schools at the time. In fact, all the evicted books are from the same publisher: Harper and Brothers.

The rotund character depicted would have been a familiar face to most New Yorkers. It is Boss Tweed, New York City politician and state assemblyman. The men in the background are members of what was known as the Tammany Saints or, less positively, the Tweed Ring. Together, Boss Tweed and his Ring became the backstage rulers of the city, wielding thunderous political clout. In this case, it is clear from the image that Tweed and his associates found the textbooks students used in their classroom worthy of expulsion. Perhaps, then, there is some justifiable reason Tweed insisted on the books’ ousting. Perhaps there is more to this story.

There is more to the story.

Fortunately, the inefficiency of the trains ensured I had ample time when all was said and done. Small blessings.

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