Students of the Gilded Age and its unraveling will value this survey.

IRON EMPIRES

ROBBER BARONS, RAILROADS, AND THE MAKING OF MODERN AMERICA

A vigorously told history of the transcontinental railroad barons and the commercial and transportation empires they forged.

Los Angeles Times columnist and reporter Hiltzik opens with a westward-bound Scotsman named Robert Louis Stevenson, not yet famous for his adventure tales, who took careful note of the emigrants aboard an early Union Pacific line and the contempt with which the railroad workers treated them. The great empire-builders among the railroad entrepreneurs—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and J. Pierpont Morgan among them—“formed a continuum that for more than four decades…transformed America’s railroads from a patchwork of short lines waging constant self-destructive war with one another into a titanic enterprise that could justly be considered America’s first big business.” They also helped transform the U.S. into a continent-spanning, and then international, power. Few were models of ethical capitalism; as Hiltzik notes, Gould in particular was “a master of financial chicanery,” but at least he was an unostentatious and retiring sort, whereas others were flagrant in buying judges and politicians. The worse the capitalists became, the greater the strength of labor activism arrayed against them. However, as the author observes, “the desire to counter the policies of the tycoons was hamstrung by the absence of instruments to do so”—until the crusading labor leader Eugene V. Debs came along. No matter, for the very White House was in the railroad owners’ pockets—the attorney general in Grover Cleveland’s Cabinet, who spent years as an executive with different railroad corporations, was paid more on the side by them than in salary by the federal treasury—until Theodore Roosevelt began his vigorous work on antitrust reforms. The story will be well known to readers versed in late-19th-century American history, but the rest will benefit from Hiltzik’s clear exposition of key episodes and players.

Students of the Gilded Age and its unraveling will value this survey. (27 b/w photos; 6 maps)

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-544-77031-7

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

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ON JUNETEENTH

The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.

Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63149-883-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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