A history of Pittsburgh and its steel industry, from the robber barons to the laborers.
In this history book, Perelman (The Regent, 2012) brings together many narrative threads: the changes in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities as the steel industry developed; the workers who toiled for low pay and saw their attempts to organize met with violence; and the ruthless, driven industrialists who clawed their ways to the top. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick and Charles Schwab are among the famous names inhabiting the elites’ side of history, while Perelman’s workers are generally nameless, identified more by their ethnicities and meager incomes. At times, this can seem like an odd choice, particularly because Perelman invents dialogue, often in stilted English, for his unnamed workers: “ ‘Where go train?’ he asked an agent in English like the sailor had told him. ‘Over there, Greenhorn,’ the man answered curtly pointing to the railroad station.” The book is stronger when dealing with the documented historical record, and the footnotes demonstrate Perelman’s wide-ranging research. Demonstrating a clear understanding of complexities in the steel industry, he unravels the clashing loyalties of the Homestead strike and the back-stabbing business negotiations, making them intelligible to readers less familiar with the subject. Though the narrative is well-structured, the writing lacks polish in some areas; other times, it occupies the boundary between elegant simile and overwriting: “Jones eased into the iron industry like a male model fitting into a bespoke suit”; “From the onset, the two clashed like vinegar and oil.” Readers willing to accommodate such narrative flourishes will find the book a useful addition to the shelves of American industrial history and a valuable guide to both primary and secondary sources, as well as a vivid depiction of some of the 19th century’s most ambitious, contradictory tycoons.
Thoroughly researched and revealing.