10.7.11

TOO EARLY, IN TOO GREAT AN ABUNDANCE, AT TOO GREAT A COST.  Thus does Stanford historian Richard White characterize the Gilded Age transcontinental railroads, at page xvii of his Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.  Book Review No. 19 will be short.  Perhaps that comes as a surprise given that Cold Spring Shops is a railroad-themed weblog, but the message is pretty straightforward.  The summation at page 490 is consistent with other research.
Transcontinental railroads were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social, and environmental fabric of the nation, creating railroads as mismanaged and corrupt as they were long, but this argument does not meet the central contention of their defenders: life for Americans was better because of them.  The transcontinentals supposedly yielded more social benefits than Americans paid in social costs.
As I dug into the book, I kept having flashbacks to Peter Lyon's (1968) To Hell in a Day Coach, a book Professor White does not make reference to that covers some of that era, with a more sensational interpretation of the high-level intrigues.  Railroaded is much more meticulously documented, and concentrates on the transcontinental lines.  Despite that, it is well written and ought be considered by any aspiring ferroequinologist.  Chapters focus inter alia on public subsidy, railroad competition, labor relations, and business follies.  A careful reading will disabuse one of the notion that the Gilded Age was any sort of libertarian fantasyland: absent public subsidies and the use of state power in the service of corporate interests, the transcontinental railroads would not have occurred.  Think James Taggart, not Dagny Taggart.  The state power, however, was not always deployed on the side of the bosses.

There's room for further research as well, if one knows where to look.  Alfred Chandler's triumphalist view of managerial capitalism undergoes interrogation, and a passage at page 509 suggests the author is thinking about the world we live in as well.
These railroads have led me into a deeper mystery of modernity: how so many powerful and influential people are so ignorant and do so many things so badly and yet the world goes on.  We are confronted with this constantly, yet we often choose to believe that those in high places know what they are doing and that those who achieve great riches are being rewarded for merit.  Those paradoxical railroads of Railroaded were not the railroads that I expected to find, but having found them, I had to confront the real questions of this book.  What were the results of a world dominated by large, inept, but powerful failures whose influence could not be avoided?  What were the structural conditions that permitted these corporations to survive and dominate, if not thrive?  Seen from within western railroads and Congress, modernity gradually seemed to me the reverse of the homilies of the Gilded Age: it was the triumph of the unfit, whose survival demanded the intervention of the state, which the corporations themselves corrupted.
That might be post-modern skepticism, but free of sesquepedalian bafflegab.  Thus the entire book: meticulously documented and well-written.  I started working through it at Elburn and had it finished by Waterloo.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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