Sunday, September 4, 2011

Striking brevity

Labor Day reading: In Blood on the Tracks, Cecilia Holland proves a fast-paced and succinct account of an overlooked turning point in U.S. history that resonates anew

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

"The Great Upheaval," Cecilia Holland writes toward the end of this brief e-book on the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, "isn't much discussed in history classes, in civics classes, in popular literature." She is correct. It is a fixture of U.S. history textbooks, usually meriting honorable mention in academic treatments of the post-Civil War era and in sources like the American Social History Project's Who Built America? So Holland's decision to write a short and fast-paced, if somewhat familiar, narrative history of the event in the newly launched Kindle Singles series is a welcome and useful addition to the literature.

Holland, a historical fiction novelist who is moonlighting here as a historian, is not particularly analytic in her treatment of the Great Strike. But she does deftly sketch the national mood of the 1870s, where celebrations of the nation's centennial were muted by the lingering effects of the Panic of 1873. She moves quickly to the wage cuts and cost-cutting measures great railroad barons like Thomas Scott and Cornelius Vanderbilt imposed on their workers, and the spontaneous response that followed in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in July of 1877. When, at the behest of the rail operators, the state's local militias were activated, the result was citizen soldiers who sided with labor instead of management.

In due course, Holland shifts the action to Baltimore -- a city with a remarkable heritage of urban unrest -- and focuses a great deal of attention on Pittsburgh, where the conflagration (literal as well a figurative) was most dramatic. Along the way, she offers vivid sketches of characters like Alexander Cassatt, brother of the great painter Mary, who as a railroad executive demanded action and fled when it backfired, as well as more obscure ones, such as Pennsylvania militia leader Alfred Pearson, whose talents and prescience resulted in his dismissal.  Though it's sometimes hard to visualize her blow-by-blow account, it is nevertheless vivid, dramatizing a degree of public disorder that is difficult to imagine now.

But not that difficult. Like many popular histories, this one wears its present-day concerns on its sleeve. For Holland, the road that connects 1877 to 2011 is a straight one. In her words, the parallels are "too obvious to need much outlining." I'm not sure I agree; the version of history here is a distinctly Whiggish one in which high-handed plutocrats eventually get their comeuppance with innovations like unemployment insurance, Social Security, and other nuts and bolts of the welfare state. I sometimes feel like history is actually moving backwards, and that equilibrium will not be re-established until all the gains workers won will be clawed back by corporate titans. But such is the stuff of which good classroom conversations are made. Blood on the Tracks does its part in providing the raw materials for one.