Book Review: Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow

Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story Of The Transcontinental Railroads, by Dee Brown

In a striking case of honesty, the back cover text tells us most of what we would need to know about the book’s approach. It reads: “In February 1854 the first railroad from the East reached the Mississippi. By the end of the nineteenth century, five major transcontinental railroads linked the East Coast with the Pacific Ocean, and thousands of miles of tracks crisscrossed the West, a vast and virginal land just a few years before. The building of America’s transcontinental railroads is a story of breathtaking ingenuity, otherworldly idealism, and all-too-worldly greed. The heroes and villains were Irish and Chinese laborers, intrepid engineers, avaricious bankers, stock manipulators, and corrupt politicians. Before it was over, more than 155 million acres—one tenth of the country—were given away to the railroad magnates, Indian tribes were decimated, the buffalo were driven from the Great Plains, millions of immigrants were lured from Europe, and a colossal continental nation was built.” There is enough wrong with this text alone to write thousands of words, but given that it is a book review I will attempt to be brief. The author makes no attempt to restrain from continual moralizing, of dubious veracity. The land of the American West had been settled by hundreds of thousands of immigrants—we call them “Native Americans” and it was hardly “virginal” land, which makes the building of the railroads sound like a rape. Immigrants were not “lured” to the West—they were overcrowded in Europe and hardly needed to be seduced by the opportunity to own land free and clear free of the tyranny and poverty they faced in Europe. The volk ohne raum [1] of Germany and Eastern Europe hardly needed to be seduced to move to western Kansas or Nebraska or the Dakotas or the rest of the rural West, indeed. And on and on it goes. Here is an author that lacks an apparent Christian mindset but feels entirely free using the language of hellfire and brimstone messages to condemn the greed of the people who saw profit in the dream of connecting the East Coast to the West Coast, and clearly takes the side of the overwhelmed tribes who were unable to defeat the technology and drive of the United States of America once the Civil War no longer delayed the progress of the transcontinental railroad. That Dee Brown is also well known for his book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee makes his advocacy plain.

In terms of its contents and organization, this is clearly the result of someone who has read a lot of material. There are citations of numerous travel diaries and letters and the behavior of Congress, showing a grasp of the relevant evidence, whatever polemical aim it is turned to. The structure of the book is both partly chronological as well as mostly topical in nature, demonstrating the author’s primary intent to write social history, where chronology and narrative are of less importance than properly discussing people by some sort of supposed class origin. Here people are divided both by socioeconomic status as well as profession, and so the book discusses train engineers and brakemen separately from the financiers and land-grabbers, and both of them separately from the elite passengers and then the less elevated immigrants, including the Crimean Mennonite and other German ancestors of at least two of the notable families in my local congregation at church who ended up settling on the Great Plains, as I found out when I spoke to them one night at a memorable dinner party after services. Although the topical organization of the book hinders the narrative flow someone, the author is so transparently obvious about his perspective but so vivid in his writing that little harm is done by the suboptimal organization of the book.

This is a book that a reader will know whether they like or not based on how willing they are to put up with the book’s consistent and strident tone of hostility towards the capitalists who ran the railroad companies as well as the corrupt politicians who let them do it the way they did it. Yet all too often the author’s clear advocacy for treating the railroads like a public trust fall short with the author’s invective against Amtrak on the one hand and the fact that the author’s critique of generations of American politicians demonstrates that he lacks faith in the ability of our government to successfully manage any kind of public trust. Where, then, are ethical people who are capable in acting in the public good to be found? If we cannot trust private enterprise because the urge for greedily profiting and setting up restrictive monopolies or oligarchies harms the level of care and concern that is supposed to be provided for people, if partnerships between government and private enterprise cannot be trusted to handle utilities effectively and efficiently, and if our government is so full of venality and corruption that our elected leaders cannot be trusted, where then are trustworthy people to be found and placed in positions where they may exercise the trust held in them to honorably and decently and justly manage railroads or any other sort of system within our country (like health care or education, for example). This paradox, that the author demands public control because of a bias against business despite being all too aware of the flaws and crony capitalism practiced by our political elite, gives the author’s prescriptions an air of unreality. It is easy to complain about the past, but given the author’s unwarranted claims that the west was “virignal” before the white man came and given that he has no means of ensuring that even public control of transportation systems or anything else would lead to those resources being used for the public good by people who were honorable and competent, the author has no solutions for the problems he bewails. Ultimately, this book is a lengthy but pointless complaint about the history of the Transcontinental railroads, without any prescription for improving the matter now.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, Church of God, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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