THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

01 December 2009

Milk and Honey Route

A conversation with Jamie, Head of Literary Manuscripts, at lunch brought up the not-so-well-known, Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963, and turned into the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film, Boom! in 1968).  Conversation turned to the phrase 'milk train', which summoned up images of early morning steam trains bringing churns into London from Devon, Somerset and other bucolic places.  What was Williams doing with this very English sounding phrase, we wondered ignorantly?

Turns out we were wrong, in a way.  The milk-train hails from 1850s America (OED: '1853 Knickerbocker 42 532 The ‘*milk-train’ still had the right of way'), and rather than gently rattling along, stopping at every little station, it races to town, having the right of way at junctions. (Having 'highballs', in fact: ‘Milk trains’..have ‘rights’ over the rails and get nothing but ‘high balls’)

One of the references in the Dictionary (via high ball) pointed to Milk and Honey(1930), by 'Dean Stiff', and something we've relatively recently acquired in first edition for the Americas Collections.  The title is one of the pioneering sociological works of 'participant observation', providing an insider's view of a slice of society.  (You can read more about the sociologist in question, Nels Anderson, at the University of New Brunswick.)  The book provides a guide to 'hobohemia', a glossary, several cartoons; and also an account of the train routes ridden by the 'hobos' of 1920s and 30s America.  The Milk and Honey route ran from Boston to New York, but any 'railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line' (24).  The D.R.G. (Denver and Rio Grande Railroad) may signify also the Damn Rotten Grub, while the M.K.T. Bible-belt railroad of Missouri, Kansas and Texas was known as 'Moral, Klannish and Theological'.

Still, there was a more English reference in the OED: '1930 P. G. WODEHOUSEVery Good, Jeeves! ix. 251 Her intention was..to..leave by the next train, even if that train was a milk-train, stopping at every station.'  Bertie would probably like a highball, too...

[M.S.]

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