In the formative years of the American republic, one measure of national progress was internal improvements — roads, harbors and other advances in transportation and communication. The public was avid about it; Manifest Destiny was wedded to it. In the early years of the 19th century, canals dominated the discussion: The Erie Canal connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic in 1825 and ensured the preeminence of New York among the Atlantic ports.
By mid-century, rail travel seized the popular imagination, by far the most ambitious line being the Transcontinental Railroad. Completed in 1869, it reduced travel from the East Coast to the West from a six-month ordeal to eight days, with a second-class fare from New York to San Francisco of $70, the equivalent of nearly $1,200 today. In its construction, though, as often happens when private capital goes into harness for public projects, there was graft and corruption on a majestic scale. The Credit Mobilier scandal and its attendant capers have been amply documented. But Dennis Drabelle, a contributing editor of The Washington Post’s Book World, has chosen to write about a much-less-examined aftermath.
The massive project had two main builders, the Union Pacific from the east and the Central Pacific from the west. Thirty years after the completion, the last survivor of the Central Pacific’s unsavory founding quartet, Collis Huntington, tried to sneak a bill through Congress to forgive the government loans that paid for the construction. William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalist nonpareil, got scent of it and dispatched his ace of the poison pen, Ambrose Bierce, to the East to employ his sourest invective to defeat the scheme. Independently, the ambitious young novelist Frank Norris was raking the muck of American corporate culture for a searing novel about the railroads, “The Octopus.”
The savage war of words between Bierce and Huntington dominates the book, but one of the more congenial aspects of narrative history is the flexibility to explore, within reason, paths of the story that might not be strictly relevant to a more academic treatment. One cannot really understand Norris, for instance, without taking account of his fixation on the works of Emile Zola, which mandates enough of an exploration of Zola himself to make the connection apparent to the modern American audience. When badly done, such detours can be distracting, but Drabelle’s deft three pages on Zola do the job without being didactic.
The author does push the let’s-get-on-with-it limit here and there. His treatment of Norris must include discussion of the Octopus’s famous predecessor novel, “McTeague,” but then Drabelle can’t resist a hefty riff on “Greed,” the notable Erich von Stroheim silent film based on that book. While arguably only tenuously connected to his main story, these sidelights add interest, as Drabelle turns his subject over like a small curiosity to see its various facets. A good writer deserves some latitude.
Indeed, one reason for this book’s success is Drabelle’s style, which is literate without being showy, employing a wide vocabulary without being obtuse. His occasional slippage into the first-person to give a research insight and his crediting of authorities and sources within the text are elements I would prefer to see relegated to the backnotes. But this is more than recompensed by Drabelle’s use of extensive excerpts from the relevant papers. There is more of an art to this than most readers realize; it is not done to pad length — in fact, at some 300 pages including notes, “The Great American Railroad War” tucks neatly into the strapped modern publishing bent to pay for as few pages as possible. But well-chosen block quotes do double duty, conveying as much context as reinforcement to an assertion.
Another success of the book is that one gets not just the central conflict, but well-shaped little biographies of the principal actors — Bierce, Norris, Hearst, Huntington and several smaller players — without having to wade through lengthy tomes about each one.
“The Great American Railroad War” is Drabelle’s second book, coming three years after his inter-mountain tale of Comstock silver, “Mile-High Fever.” Some of the criticisms leveled at the first effort apply equally here, principally that his choice to tell the story severally through the viewpoint of its participants makes it a bit choppy, and some things get repeated. In a purely chronological rendition, this would not be the case, but it also probably would not be as interesting. Drabelle is comfortable in his role as historian-storyteller, and that is what popular narrative history does.
There are places where the seams show. From the title, one might think that Bierce and Norris were working in tandem, but “The Octopus” appeared well after the conflict was resolved. Drabelle might also have made more of the irony that Bierce, while employed as Hearst’s bulldog and muckraker, showed no patience with his own literary proteges when they did the same thing. He insisted on purity of literature from his disciples, such as Blanche Partington andGeorge Sterling. He regularly threatened to drop them, and sometimes did drop them, if they tried to freight their art with social relevance — one reason for his vehement distaste for Jack London.
Then too, as American history goes, the Southern and Central Pacific Railroads’ attempt to evade repayment of their debts, large as they were, is not a large story. And corporate greed, malfeasance and back-room deal-fixing are subjects all too well known in the present day. But equally that makes a case for the book’s timeliness and relevance to a modern reader.
In a larger sense, much of the art of writing narrative history lies in discovering the little-known incident, realizing what makes it compelling and presenting it not as a lecture but as a story. At this, Drabelle has succeeded in the most lively way.
THE GREAT AMERICAN
How Ambrose Bierce and
Frank Norris Took on the
Central Pacific Railroad
By Dennis Drabelle
St. Martin’s. 306 pp. $26.99