Institute on California and the West Railroaded Workshop, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, July 9, 2011: Starting Arguments: Quarrels over Time and Space

Article excerpt

It may seem a perverse reaction to criticism, but this session on Railroaded was a rare pleasure. Having colleagues that I respect as much as Naomi Lamoreaux, Steve Ussel man, Daniel Carpenter, and Eric Rauchway take the time to critique a book as recently published as Railroaded is an honor. Whenever I listen to them, I learn something. I appreciate their criticisms, their wit, and their good humor. I also appreciate Bill Deverell's hard work in organizing this session.

The academy at its best remains the home of careful reading, reasoned debate, and informed disagreements. These are all qualities that I wish were more widespread in American society. These scholars do not concentrate on tangential points or create red herrings. They go after what are key issues in my work, state my positions, at least for the most part accurately, and question critical issues of evidence.

They are all also as direct as the book itself. Eric Rauchway emphasizes my deliberate use of vernacular and quite blunt prose. If I were ever to found a university, its motto would be En garde, and I now need to live up to that motto. Having made some bold assertions in Railroaded, these critics challenge me to defend them. My goal in any book that I write is to start arguments, not to finish them. Having started an argument, it remains for me to try to match their cogency while defending my positions. Rather than reply to all these critiques point by point, I will respond to the larger issues my critics raise.

My critics are all astute historians who generally realize that my main targets here are not really the tycoons themselves, but versions of the American past that they represent. One of the few statements of my views I challenge is Naomi's claim that I think the problems of the late nineteenth century were "produced by greedy financiers who manipulated the political process to further their own ambitions." On the contrary, I emphasize that my guys were not smart enough or powerful enough to produce the problems of the late nineteenth century. They were greedy, but in many respects remarkably inept. Their corporations, more often than not, failed. What interests me is how these tycoons profited from failure and how failures produced corporations that shaped the rest of the century. I am targeting both a naive entrepreneurial history and the functionalist managerial history of Alfred Chandler and Robert Wiebe. Chandler and Wiebe get much right, but I think their models can't explain much of what I find in the late nineteenth century.

Given the themes of this book, it is fitting that my key disagreements with my critics center on time and space. Where an author ends a story affects the meaning of the story. I chose to end the book in the depression of the early 1890s, when the transcontinentals collapsed into receivership. This makes the book seem, in literary terms, a tragedy. Dan and Steve put forth a different time frame, one that culminates in the early twentieth century. Their time span would give the story a happy ending by replacing my failed transcontinentals with twentieth-century regulated railroads.

Temporal framing has more than literary significance. Dan and Steve accuse me of neglecting the nationalization of politics, slighting the emergence of a capable and effective class of middle managers and bureaucrats, and underestimating the importance of the formalism embedded in procedures, tables, and reports. But to make these developments the culmination of my story would be to write Whig history, giving what happened in the Progressive Era precedence over the events of the Gilded Age. Such a Whiggish emphasis would make the transcontinentals and antimonopolists into so many John the Baptists preparing the way for a later period's efficient corporate managers and Progressives.

The Progressives and Socialists of the early twentieth century created national parties that were, in terms of scale and organization, very different from antimonopolism. …