Via John Fea’s blog, I found Gary Gerstle’s review of Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Both White and Gerstle in his review are writing history for our times, friends:
For a generation now, historians have been reluctant to write about capitalism. Cultural history has been the rage, even as developments in the Second Gilded Age (1980–2008)—the unleashing of private economic power, the dismantling of government regulatory controls, and the deepening of income inequality—were making clear the need for a new reckoning with capitalism as a historical force.
Against this background, it is significant that one of the most distinguished historians of our time, Richard White, has written a book about an epic story of the First Gilded Age: the building of the transcontinental railroads between the 1860s and the 1890s. From the moment the first of these railroads was finished at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, these immense undertakings became an American obsession, eliciting both marvel and anger. The marvel was about the technological and organizational feats required to build these roads across vast and often difficult terrain and the profound ways in which these projects transformed America—economically, geographically, and politically. The anger was about the power accruing to the men who built these roads and their consequent ability to hoodwink investors, bribe congressmen, exploit farmers and other small shippers, and engage in speculative activities so dangerous that they periodically brought the entire U.S. economy crashing to the ground. No industry did more to galvanize anticapitalist fury or to generate movements for economic regulation during the First Gilded Age than the railroads. Continue Reading »