"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Stephen E. Ambrose, "Nothing Like It in the World", David Howard Bain, "Empire Express"

Aug 1, 2002

Some years ago, during a long summer vacation in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, I became curious about the trains that daily roared through the town and disappeared up the Mississippi. They had intriguing names: The Great Northern, The Empire Builder. All I knew about them was that they were on the way to St. Paul where they would turn west and head for the Pacific. Somebody told me that the "empire builder" was Jim Hill. I sensed epic stories, so I entertained myself for the rest of the summer by reading all the books I could find in the local library on the building of the transcontinental railroads. But it was only a summer romance, and when summer was over I went on to other things.

My interest revived recently, however, when I read William H. McNeill's review of Stephen E. Ambrose's Nothing Like It In the World (Simon and Schuster) and David Empire Express (Penguin) in The New York Review of Books (20 September 2001: p. 59 ff.). McNeill's assessment was even-handed: Ambrose is celebratory, highly informed about the technicalities of construction; Bain is more thorough and more politically and socially aware of the situation of Indians and workers. This gave me no reason to choose one over the other, so I read them both. I'm glad I did, otherwise I might have read only Ambrose, whose Undaunted Courage, about Lewis and Clark, was a moving story. So was Nothing Like It, but Bain's Empire Express was a story not to be missed.

It's a long book, almost eight hundred pages, twice as long as Nothing Like It. But Bain tells a gripping story, never allowing the thoroughness of his research to weigh down his narrative. For much of the book we are flashed back and forth from the drive westward across miles of prairie and mountain to the seemingly impossible task of surmounting the Sierras. There are enough crises so that each switch from the eastern to the western struggle heightens the suspense about the fate of the whole endeavor. There are frequent trips to Washington and New York, where Bain sorts out -- as well as anyone could -- the furious politicking and intricate financial manipulations of a dozen or so major characters, all of whom he brings to well-documented life in his pages. What purported to be a national effort, a movement to link east to west and create an empire, appears, in its devilish details, an inextricable tangle of enterprise and greed, arrogance and deviousness, competence and incompetence, dedication and cynical self-seeking. There is a villain of sorts, Dr. Thomas C. Durant, "first genius for manipulation," and there are heroes of sorts, like Theodore Judah and Grenville Dodge, engineers; and Bain, like the good story-teller he is, keeps you wondering whether any of them will get his just rewards or punishments.

But Bain, as McNeill pointed out, is concerned with deeper matters than technology, politics, and finance. There are the workers, largely Irish in the east and Chinese in the west. The Irish appear with their archetypal failings. The Chinese, on the other hand, are disciplined, industrious, and amazingly ingenious. Tunneling, blasting, chipping away at the huge barrier of the Sierras, they are, in one perspective, the only heroes of the story. And then there are the Indians. Bain tells story after story of Indians being brutally brushed aside, more like irritants than enemies. Westward the course of empire had to take its way, and no one in the enterprise ever questioned the assumption. The Indians had to go. The bloody resistance put up by native Americans to the invasion met bloody repression. Whites were massacred. Indians were massacred. Tracks continued to be laid. Indians tore them up, wrecking trains, killing builders. Soldiers drove the Indians off or killed them, and the tracks continued westward, laying the foundations of the American empire.

Empire is the word. In eighteenth and nineteenth century America, empire was good. One looks at the architecture of our capitol and thinks of Rome. Or one looks at Horatio Greenough's marble George Washington at the Smithsonian. Washington lifts his bare right arm in a gesture of authority. He is wearing a toga. Rome was successively both republic and empire. Americans, I suspect, were saying republic but meaning empire. Walt Whitman, in his Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass virtually shouts out that America "at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night," blasphemously making America the rival of the God of Genesis, whose first creative act was to separate light from darkness and make day and night. One is also given pause by Thomas Cole's ambiguous series of paintings, "The Course of Empire": first the state of savagery, then arcadia, then the full flowering of empire, followed immediately by violent strife, and at last desolation. Today most of us, though not all of us,* hope that our country has rejected imperial ambitions and that Cole's cyclical vision of the rise and fall of empire is not the image of our fate.

Reading the story of the transcontinental railroad, looking back at the relentless advance of European immigration across the North American continent, it seems that the forces at work are beyond morality, beyond the power of choice of any individual or group of individuals. What possible consideration of human obligation and responsibility could have restrained that massive movement of technology and people. And so the railroads were built. The imperial drive succeeded. Native Americans are no longer separate peoples. They are pretty much, in spite of some legal niceties, simply Americans. It is only in the twentieth century that we have been forced to see that empire also means fear, hate, mutual dehumanization and demonization.

Last Thanksgiving my wife and I and some visiting friends ventured down to ground zero. We worked our way slowly through the crowds of people, straining to get some concrete feel for the scope of the disaster. We saw almost nothing other than fences and barriers bearing flags and banners memorializing lost heroes and loved ones. After about a half hour edging through the silent crowd our visitors suggested that we walk on south to the old Custom House on Bowling Green to visit the National Museum of the American Indian. It is mostly artifacts, clothes, cooking things, weapons. The history is on the walls, where pictures of famous Indian leaders are displayed side by side with documents that testify to the terror they inspired in white settlers. Indian hatred and cruelty were, to the whites, beyond imagination, utterly inhuman, demonic. And it is true that young Indian men were raised as warriors -- hunters, too, but warriors, long before the white man appeared. And all of that is so distant from us today. The Indian is a part of our romantic past. When I was a boy, Scout troops put on Indian war dances and formed secret societies which imitated the initiation rites of Indian tribes.

It's hard to say whether these two terrors, the old one we have outlived and the immediate one we find so hard to understand, have anything in common. Unfortunately, the epic stories with which we love to celebrate our nation tend to have dark backgrounds. The building of the transcontinental railroad certainly did. That the official rhetoric of the day should try to give the current campaign an epic dimension is, perhaps, inevitable. But in our serious reflection on today's terror, we can't afford to ignore the dark imperial background. That's where we are likely to find whatever understanding we are going to get.

*See "American Imperialism, Embraced", The New York Times Magazine, December 9, 2001: 54.

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