In his latest book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, H.W. Brands revisits the 19th century, a period he calls “the real seedtime of modern America.” Here, the University of Texas history professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist discusses modern capitalism, money and tweeting haikus with Kirkus.
How did this project come about?
The chief characteristic of modern America is that it is a capitalist democracy. I had written about the development of democracy when I wrote about Andrew Jackson (Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, 2005). It’s during the second half [of the 19th century] that modern capitalism emerges. I had covered the ground somewhat in my book Masters of Enterprise (1999) where I describe some of the key figures who come back to play major roles in this book; J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and various others. But those were biographical sketches. What I wanted to do this time was to look at the whole institution of modern capitalism; how it developed, how it changed life in the United States economically and what the spillover effects in American society and American culture and American political practice were.
Was there something about these key figures that made them especially suited to success, or was it a matter of coincidence?
It’s a little bit of both, but there’s also something I call the lottery effect. The Gilded Age was a time when American industry was ripe for takeoff and somebody was going to take advantage. So there’s nothing that says it had to be Rockefeller, but there was something about the times that said it had to be somebody.
What is your approach to writing?
I want to immerse my readers in the moment. When I write about the Chicago Fire of 1871, I want them to feel the heat as they’re racing away from the flames, because if I can make people appreciate what it was like to be alive at the time, then I’ve gone about 80 percent of the way toward accomplishing what I want to get done.
How do you do your research?
One of the joys of living in the Internet age, especially the age of Google Books, and especially when you’re writing about the period, well, beyond current copyright control, is that almost anything good and important that was written in the 19th century is available at the click of a mouse. I can read the Chicago Tribune for this period. When I know what the important events were and when they happened, it’s relatively easy to follow that up and find eyewitness accounts because, to me, the eyewitness account if the gold standard of historical documentation.
What’s your next project?
After a big book like this one, I try to do smaller books. I’ve got a book coming out from the University of Texas Press in the spring and it’s called Greenback Planet. It’s a short history of the U.S. dollar. One of the principal reasons I decided to write the book is because of this question [brought up in American Colossus]: greenbacks, gold, silver—what does money consist of? It’s at the heart of what the dollar is. And so [in Greenback Planet] I start the story earlier [than in Colossus], and I carry the story up to 2010.
Where did the haikus on your website, hwbrands.com, come from?
I’m convinced that you can write about any topic at any length. You can write a history of the world in 800 words or 8 million words. In fact, I said [to my students once], “If you want to write this research paper as a haiku, go ahead.” Then along came Twitter. I thought, if I got on Twitter and started writing a history of the United States, 140-characters at a time, it would be a really good intellectual exercise, and it might even attract some interest. And then, from the back of my mind, I said, “Well, you know, Bill, you’ve been talking about haikus, and they would be less than 140 characters.” So I have been tweeting with these haikus for four or five months now. Sometimes I’ll do three a week; sometimes, it’ll be three weeks before I do one. It’s a long-term project. It may outlast Twitter. It may outlast me.