Luther Spoehr: Review of Dennis Drabelle's "The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad" (St. Martin's Press, 2012)

Luther Spoehr is an HNN book editor and senior lecturer at Brown University.

For readers still digesting Richard White’s remarkable (and remarkably long and controversial) Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012), Dennis Drabelle’s The Great American Railroad War can serve as an appealing dessert. Those still thinking about reading White’s book will find The Great American Railroad War a stimulating appetizer.

Drabelle, who has already written a history of the Comstock Lode, returns to the old neighborhood and sets the stage for his main story by retelling the familiar tale of how the Big Four (Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Collis P. Huntington) pushed, pulled, bribed, and hornswoggled their way to fortune by pushing the Central Pacific eastward to meet the Union Pacific. “For all its hocus-pocus,” Drabelle admits, “the Central Pacific did not stoop to some of the Union Pacific’s most egregious tactics, such as adding needless curves to pad the number of subsidized miles covered or laying tracks over uncleared ice and snow (with the predictable result that one of its trains slid off the tracks, flipped over, and landed upside down in a ditch).” But the group—particularly Huntington—used plenty of dubious tricks of their own (such as burning potentially incriminating ledgers), not least of which was how they proposed to avoid paying back the $75 million debt due to the government in 1896. In a sentence that exemplifies Drabelle’s fluid, precise, informal style, he summarizes their position: Huntington “could live with federal legislation that would bundle the debts into a single loan, repayable at, say, 2 or 3 percent interest over a period of, oh, how about 75 years?”

Having set the scene with 80 vivid narrative pages, Drabelle reaches the heart of his book: the muckraking articles written by Ambrose Bierce, author, satirist, and journalist, that drew the public’s attention to the “rail rogues’” shady operation; and the sprawling novel, The Octopus, that Frank Norris wrote with much the same purpose in mind. Underwritten by William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, Bierce tore into the scheme in a series of 60 articles, written in his characteristic biting style. In those days, says Drabelle, “words didn’t just ring out—they pinched, gouged, slapped, kicked, and pulled hair.” And nobody made them do all those things better than Bierce. Now remembered primarily for his Devil’s Dictionary (“CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”), Bierce relentlessly spotlighted the Central Pacific/Southern Pacific’s machinations--past, present, and planned for the future. Drabelle devotes about 100 pages to Bierce’s evisceration of the scheme, and even though the summaries sometimes go on for too long, any stretch of 100 pages that can quote Bierce again and again (“Corporation, n. an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility”) is worthwhile. 

Then Frank Norris, the well-to-do young author who aspired to be the “American Zola,” joins the story. As Drabelle says, Norris’s “urge to paint on a broad canvas couldn’t have been further removed from Bierce’s miniaturist leanings.” Norris was a naturalist, whose characters were caught up in forces beyond their control or even understanding. Intended as part of a trilogy, The Octopus, by its title alone (taken from a famous cartoon of the time), captures the overweening reach and power of the Big Four’s creature. Says Drabelle: “The Octopus belongs in the select company of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: novels that have exerted a profound influence on American politics.” 

Just how successful Bierce and Norris were depends, I suppose, on how one defines “success.” They helped to create and then rode a progressive wave of reform, although both died too soon (Norris, very young, in 1902; Bierce in 1913) to see how things ultimately turned out. Drabelle argues that “we can see the result of the Southern Pacific’s suborning of lawmakers and regulators in the mess that is California’s politics today….Big money…still has California over a barrel, just as it did in the Gilded Age.” And California, now as before, may point the way for the rest of the country: “At the beginning of the twenty-first century,” Drabelle says, “the political climate is such that the United States is in danger of being dragged back into the era of the robber barons.”

Whether or not you agree fully with Drabelle (and he doesn’t pound the pulpit very often about contemporary implications), you will be engaged by his  book. Energetic, even sprightly, in its political, economic, and literary presentations, The Great American Railroad War will make you laugh while it makes you think. Can’t ask a book to do more than that.

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