Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kazin on White on Railroads, books on Highways, the Natural History of the Planet, and more in the book reviews

"Transcontinental railroads...were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social and environmental fabric of the nation, creating railroads as mismanaged and corrupt as they were long," writes Richard White in The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, reviewed by Michael Kazin today in the New York Times.  Kazin finds the book "convincing" and "powerful."  He writes:  "White’s scathing narrative is often reminiscent of older histories and novels about the Gilded Age that pit clever, if immoral, 'robber barons' against a public that grew increasingly alarmed about the extent of their power and ill-gotten wealth."  For White, the railroad barons were
“men in octopus suits.” He views them as 19th-century equivalents of the profit-mad, short-sighted financiers who recently undermined economies on both sides of the Atlantic. Both transcontinental railroad managers then and the Wall Street bankers in our time ran “highly leveraged operations” that “depended on continued borrowing to meet their obligations.” Both groups made it rich because they had powerful enablers in Washington. In the 1870s and 1890s, when panicked investors dumped the heavily watered stock in their railroad portfolios, the market collapsed, and long depressions ensued....
Grover Cleveland, the Democrat who sat in the White House during the depression of the 1890s, intoned, “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” Yet, in 1894, Cleveland’s attorney general, Richard Olney, rushed to court to bust a national strike by railroad workers who were expressing solidarity with a walkout by employees of the Pullman sleeping car company. With a federal injunction in hand, Cleveland ordered thousands of American troops to break the strike and arrest its leaders. At the time, the attorney general was on the payroll of at least one major railroad company. 
Continue reading here.

Also reviewed in the New York Times,  The Big Roads:  Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift.  The author builds "his narrative around...a triumvirate of men who at different periods were central to the highways’ creation," Tom Vanderbilt writes.
 The highway builders tended to be conservative, ramrod-straight men who, as one wit once put it to me, had the whiff of concrete and polyester about them. But Swift commendably humanizes them, drawing out their polyvalent selves and hinting at their contradictions. In one speech, [Frank] Turner, a strident mass-transit advocate, linked the 1960s urban opposition to the highway program to wider social unrest and "the breakup of the home," even as his Interstate project was leveling urban neighborhoods — many of which were quite stable, contrary to the usual depiction.

Read the rest here.

HERE ON EARTH: A Natural History of the Planet by Tim Flannery is a "fascinating, sometimes exasperating but ultimately valuable new book," writes Andrew C. Revkin in the New York Times.  The author "moves to the widest possible view, swinging between a loving invocation of our home planet and its astonishing cloak of living things and a blistering portrayal of modern Homo sapiens as fuel- and chemical-addicted 'Gaia-killers.' Our self-centered resource binge, he writes, is exacting irreparable damage to Earth’s biological patrimony, 'undoing the work of ages.'"

Also reviewed this week:  The Long Night: William L. Shirer and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Steve Wick in The Book (New Republic).