Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Richard White's "Railroaded"

Richard White, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Parkman Prize, is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford’s Page 99 Test pretty much nails my book Railroaded. The excerpt from page 99 concerns the “friendship” that was at the center of so much Gilded Age politics, corruption, and business. Similar networks remain central to modern politics, business, and corruption today. The excerpt below captures much of this, but page 99 breaks off a paragraph that I will complete here: “The key figures of the Gilded Age networks of finance, government, journalism, and business had stumbled like so many vampires on a cultural form (friendship), drained it of its lifeblood (affection), and left it so that it still walked, talked, and served their purposes in the world. Friendship was a code: a network of social bonds that could organize political activity. Affection was not necessary.”

Railroaded is a history the transcontinental railroads of the United States, Canada, and Mexico –all of which were enterprises dependent on government aid and subsidies --to try to get at the mystery of how some men obtained great wealth from corporations that lost money and ended up in receivership. Its thesis is that failure is as critical to understanding modernity as success. The result of these railroads was dumb growth: growth that enriched insiders but brought environmental harm, political corruption, and social disaster for Indian peoples and for many whites. Settlement in the regions west of the 100th meridian and east of the Sierras during the late nineteenth century brought environmental damage, political upheaval, and repeated economic collapse. The question is not whether transcontinental railroads were eventually necessary, but rather whether they should have been built where, when, and how they were. Friendship provides one of the keys to the processes that sustained these dubious enterprises.

Often missing from Gilded Age friendship was what seems to us its defining and necessary element: affection. It is not that these men never liked each other. When Mark Hopkins died in 1878, Huntington wrote, “I liked him so much and his death has hurt me more than I can tell. If I had not so much to do for the living I would stop for a time and think only of the dead.” But Friend Huntington despised Friend Stanford. “I am disposed to think,” Huntington had written Charles Crocker in 1871, “Stanford will go to work for the railroad company as soon as the horse races are over. Of course, I do not expect anything until then.” And he once wrote Stanford himself, “I wish you would tell me whom to correspond with in Cal. When I want anything done; for I have become thoroughly convinced that there is no use in writing to you.” The other Associates shared his disdain. Their writing on Stanford is a chronicle of amazement, dismay and irritation at his greed, laziness, ignorance, and ineptitude. Mark Hopkins thought Stanford’s key quality was his intellectual torpor. “He could do it,” Hopkins told Huntington of some necessary task, “but not without more mental effort than is agreeable to him.” Men who had once been Stanford’s friends were even less generous. Ex-Senator Conness of California railed against Stanford as “this immensely stupid man,” who has forgotten he “had helped make his fortune.”

David Colton was certain that Stanford and Hopkins disliked him and would blackball him as an Associate when the special five-year agreement that made him one of them was up. It was this certainty, as well as his financial desperation, that led him to embezzle. But even as Colton embezzled, he employed the language of friendship. When friends of the Central Pacific failed to pass critical legislation in 1878, Colton was alternately lachrymose and indignant –“we have got no true friends outside of us five.”
Learn more about Railroaded at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue