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RAILROADED by Richard White Kirkus Star


The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

by Richard White

Pub Date: May 31st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-06126-0
Publisher: Norton

The railroads may not have advanced civilization in America, notes this sharp-edged history, but they were eminently creative in their destruction. 

Latter-day corporatistas will not be pleased with the neo-Marxist slant that eminent historian White (American History/Stanford Univ.; Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past, 1998, etc.) brings to his vigorous account of the 19th-century transcontinental railroads. It is that great scholar of entrepreneurship Joseph Schumpeter whose spirit guides much of White’s book, particularly his notion that capitalism involves “creative destruction,” the constant uprooting of the old for the new in order to sell it all over again. (Think of CDs replacing LPs, and of MP3s replacing CDs.) In the case of the railroads, the creative destruction involved the replacement of one form of corporation with another—and if, as White argues, the 19th-century railroad corporations almost always went bust in the manner of the dotcoms in our own time, the individuals who controlled those corporations mostly did well for themselves. As he writes, “[t]he celebrated creative destruction of capitalism is, it seems, gentle with the rich,” an observation not to be lost in our own time. White peoples the narrative with characters who are fascinating as case studies of the seven deadly sins, such as entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer Tom Scott, who “was not so much tainted by corruption as impregnated with it”; and Samuel Huntington, who railed against Scott for beating him at his own game, complaining that “the devil, the communist, and the Pa. R.R. have united against us.” Huntington opposed Leland Stanford, too, but Stanford was a staunch Republican, and the Republican powers that be warned him that if Huntington’s opposition cost Stanford his Senate seat, “they would punish Huntington by punishing [his] railroad.” And so forth, one alliance conspiring against another—but, as White makes clear, all conspiring to grow rich, and all at the expense of the working people.

Excellent big-picture, popularly written history of the Howard Zinn mold, backed by a mountain of research and statistics.