Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"The Great American Railroad War" by Dennis Drabelle (2012)

This book is kind of about a railroad. It’s also kind of a biography about two of the greatest journalists/authors America has ever produced. It’s also about the Civil War, the Gilded Age, William Randolph Hearst and the robber barons who took loans from the government, with no intention of ever re-paying them. And of course, the book is also about the political patronage and corruption which allowed this system of building a transcontinental railroad to exist in the first place; with a few buffalo and Indians thrown in. Which is to say; this book has it all.

Author Dennis Drabelle has kicked out all the stops in this rip snorting account of how America got linked by two railroad companies; and how they tried to bilk the public out of the money to do it. Drawing upon the writings of both Ambrose Bierce, a fascinating individual, who also wrote “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”; which eclipses just about everything written by Edgar Allan Poe himself; he recounts Bierce’s exploits both before and after the war, painting an indelible picture of the man, and how he became involved in the fight against the railroad barons in the first place.

Of equal importance is Frank Norris, another famous American novelist and journalist, he would go on to write his masterpiece “Colossus”, which was based upon the iconic political cartoon which showed the railroads as an octopus, with tentacles ensnaring the nation. That novel would parallel the work of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

The book is as much the story of these two celebrated journalists as it is of the railroad itself. The railroad, and the barons who built them, serve as a stage on which the author plays the actions of these two literary icons in a true dramatic fashion, with the only difference being that these events are all true. Each; in his own way; attacked the railroad for all of the right reasons, while never disputing the necessity of a transcontinental line.

The author has delivered a superb history of both the journalists and the railroads which were the center of their attentions. Norris, of course, would go on to write his most famous of novels, titled “The Octopus” after the famous cartoon by Nash, which depicted the railroads as an octopus with tentacles reaching everywhere. And Bierce has gone down in history as one of America’s finest journalists, known for such diverse works as “The Devil’s Dictionary” and a slew of short stories.

A fine book is a wonderful thing; sometimes it can open your eyes to the history which was relegated to the scrap heap; and you can never tell what treasures might lay beneath the surface.

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