Institute on California and the West Railroaded Workshop, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, July 9, 2011: Railroaded, or Just Railroading? the Mundane Madness of Management

Article excerpt

Madness! Madness!" These are the words uttered by Major Clipton at the conclusion of David Lean's 1957 epic film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Clipton, a British medical officer, has just watched a Japanese supply train plunge spectacularly from a mangled railroad bridge to the river below. Moments before, the delirious Colonel Nicholson has managed to blow up the bridge, which he and his imprisoned troops have spent most of the movie erecting. Nicholson, a fastidious professional officer, has envisioned the construction project as a way to sustain morale among his troops while also demonstrating British fortitude and thus humbling their captors. Belatedly, he has grasped how the bridge will also serve the purposes of that enemy--a point Clipton had tried gently to impress upon him as the work progressed. Now all is dust, and mud, and waste. Madness!

Clipton's summary comment springs to mind as I reflect upon Richard White's epic new history of the western transcontinental railroads. Perhaps it is the book's grand cinematic quality. As history, it harkens back to those star-studded, widescreen productions of the fifties and early sixties, as filmmakers tried desperately to lure their wayward audience back from television. Remember How the West Was Won? (White's version is more like the antidote, How the West Was Lost.) Here one of our greatest academic historians, a master of small gems such as The Organic Machine, paints on a truly broad canvas. Filled with famous men engaged in grand escapades, his book might well sit comfortably alongside those we expect to find on the front tables of our national bookstores. You know the ones. Only this book, like Lean's film in its day, has a decidedly darker cast than most of its companions. Courage undaunted? Hardly. For White's voice, like Clipton's, is that of the chorus reflecting on a Greek tragedy. If the film were a Western--perhaps the more appropriate cinematic analogy for today's event--White would be the old fellow perched on the bunkhouse steps or serving up grub to the trail hands, shaking his head and spitting dismissively into the dirt as the action swirled around him. Darned foolishness!

HOW DO THINGS MANAGE TO GET DONE?

At its heart, White's book poses the same question that fascinated Lean: How do things manage to get done, and to work, amidst such foolishness? How can a material world get built, function, and endure, when its governing apparatus appears so infused with madness? For Lean, of course, the source of that madness was war and the ethos of the officers trained to conduct it. For White, the absurdity resides not so much in war (though the western railroads that fascinate him might, in fact, be seen as products of war), but rather in corporate finance and its attendant politics. Above all, in finance--a world characterized by White as so filled with chicanery, duplicity, and shenanigans as to border on madness. Or maybe cross the border. "Money," writes White in discussing finance of the western cattle trade, "was a wonderful mask for madness." (476)

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The question White poses is a serious one. It crosses my mind regularly, in both my private and professional capacities. I begin most of my days by reading my morning newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which often leaves me shaking my head at the latest nonsense perpetrated by my local and state politicians. (Some of these occasionally make their way into the Times of Los Angeles and New York.) Then I get into my car for the short drive to work and about halfway to campus, as I rise up on one of those high-arching flyovers and see much of the city arrayed before me, I often marvel to myself, "But it's still there, and working." Or, in a variant perhaps more to the point, "Well, the bridge hasn't fallen--yet." It's a wonder, but things do carry on. How?

When I arrive at campus and put on my hat as a historian of technology, such questions hardly disappear. …