Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dennis Drabelle's "The Great American Railroad War"

Dennis Drabelle is author of Mile-High Fever. He has written for multiple publications and is currently a contributing editor and a mysteries editor for The Washington Post Book World. In 1996 he won the National Book Critics Circle’s award for excellence in reviewing. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Drabelle applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad, and reported the following:
Page 99 touches one of my book's twin "heroes" on a tender spot. That would be Ambrose Bierce (the subtitle is "How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad"), and on that page Bierce is setting off for England with his bride, Mollie. The trip is a gift from Mollie's wealthy parents, but the newlyweds intend to stay for a long while: Bierce has by now developed a reputation as an acid-penned journalist in San Francisco, and he hopes to parlay that into a good living in London, about which he has heard tales that make him starry-eyed.

As happened so often in Bierce's life, however, there were misunderstandings at both ends of the transaction. London might have been glittering and majestic in the early 1870s, but it didn't pay writers very well. And the Brits insisted on taking Bierce for a wild man of the West, whereas he wanted to be much more than that. In the end, he managed to produce a good deal of first-rate topical satire in England, but when this was collected in book form, the result disappointed him. He decided that, for all his way with words, and especially with barbed ones, his piecework didn't add up to all that much between hard covers.

The British interlude was only the first of several professional disappointments for Bierce, and their sum total made him especially eager to sink his teeth into a job of work two decades later, when his boss at the San Fransciso Examiner, William Randolph Hearst, sent Bierce to Washington, DC, to combat the Central Pacific's attempt to wangle a huge favor from Congress. Bierce rose to the occasion, defeating the much better-heeled railroad, and the sixty or so fiery articles he wrote while doing so add up to the masterpiece he was otherwise unable to write.
Learn more about The Great American Railroad War at the St. Martin's Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue