Friday, November 11, 2011

Problem #10 [#9 was waived]: Historical Theory

In the book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White tells the stirring, epic, heroic saga of spanning and connecting the North American continent by rail; minus the "stirring, epic, heroic" part. In place of the standard narrative, he tells a story in which the primary ingredients are base greed, stunning incompetence, and maybe what's worse of all--the sheer superfluousness of it all. This is the story of something which didn't need doing, being done badly by people who didn't know how to do it.

The larger theme of White's book, that the transcontinentals were simply unnecessary and served no positive economic purpose other than to make a handful of well-connected and unscrupulous businessmen very rich, is served by five distinct theories, which he lays out in the Introduction. Briefly stated, they are:

1) The transcontinental railroads had a strong relationship with the newly powerful and financially lucrative central states of the three large North American polities;
2) The standard historical claim that railroads collapsed time and space is too pat and ignores the reality that it did so unevenly and without rational, equitable, or transparent criteria.
3) The railroad corporations which built the transcontinentals fell far short of living up to the ideal of being rationalizing, standardizing institutions. Laughably short, in many cases.
4) The antimonopolist movements which came to oppose or at least challenge the uncontested power of the transcontinentals weren't well-intentioned but doomed antimodern Luddites, but rather thoroughly modern participants in the market economy who wanted the institutions of capitalist agriculture to work in a fair manner.
5) The men who ran the transcontinentals were neither enlightened entreprenuers who created a beneficial infrastructure for the greater good, nor were the they ruthlessly efficient, "creatively destructive" robber barons who ulimately created an efficient and effective national network even as they crushed unfortunate bystanders in the process; rather, they were bumbling fools who somehow managed to get very rich while wasting enormous resources creating rail networks which were both unnecessary and ultimatey untenable.

White weaves these theories throughout his text deftly, and with a great deal of support from primary documents such as letters, diaries, financial reports (a daunting task, as these were often inscrutible even to the men who created them), news reports, government documents, schedules, and so forth.

For example, he illustrated the close connection between American transcontinentals and the post-Civil War Federal government by tracing the importance of federal legislators in gaining favorable land grants and access to international capital; Leland Stanford was a Senator, for that matter. White points out that many of these men had been involved in the Union war effort; their approach to building the railroads was heavily influenced by their experiences harnassing the power of the federal government for national ends, with industrial and expensive means. Their worldview had been shaped by their war experiences, and their belief in govenment-driven, centrally-directed endeavors was as well.

Furthermore, consider how White uses both train schedules and internal memos, as well as copious economic data, to show how the oft-heralded ability of the railroads to eliminate barriers of time and distance was not a uniform or democratic process in practice; local markets were subject to widely divergent rate schedules, and competing transportation options, such as steamships in the San Fernando Valley, were artificially squeezed out of the market, to the detriment of local producers.

Railroaded is a compelling read; an enjoyably cantankerous refutation of a sepia-toned, myth-encrusted narrative celebrating rugged individualism, enlightened entreprenuerialism, and visionary enterprise. White's contrarian chronicle sets out to tip over some sizable edifices, but he has a strong theoretical foundation to give his endlessly prying documentary evidence plenty of leverage.


Lisa Sidletsky said...

" enjoyably cantankerous refutation of a sepia-toned, myth-encrusted narrative celebrating rugged individualism, enlightened entreprenuerialism, and visionary enterprise." Wow. I had to look up five of these words. And yet, very descriptive of the work. I like the way you laid out his theories in a precise bullet form. Much easie to see that way. Lisa Sid

Dan Curry said...

Wow! Love your last paragraph. Talk about creating a word picture!