Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900

American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (Random House Large Print)American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sweeping economic history with a narrative twist

If the term "economic history" makes your eyes glaze over as you think about a dry analysis of GDP projections and steel tonnage figures, fear not. There isn't a single mention of inflation or per capita income in here. Think more along the lines of "Ken Burns: The Gilded Age of Capitalism." Although the subject matter is susceptible to drowning in rivers of mind-numbing statistical data, the author takes a single-mindedly narrative approach to his material. Moreover, economics is not really the sole focus: Custer's last, disastrous campaign; Irish and Chinese immigration; and the rise of Jim Crow are also featured in the book. Usually, the focus is either a major figure of the period or a representative individual. Biographical sketches of J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie are a must, of course, but you also get to read about Little Big Horn from the viewpoint of a thirteen-year-old Sioux and Booker T. Washington's rise from slavery to national prominence toward the end of the century.

The tone is neither elegiac nor revisionist. The author deals in a relatively straightforward manner with both the positive aspects of the booming American economy and the seamier sides, such as racial tensions, corruption and labor conflict.

A perusal of the books cited gave me the impression that "American Colossus" is not based on either the latest scholarship or any fresh archival work. For example, the narration of Jay Gould's attempt to corner the gold market is almost exclusively based on the printed proceedings of a congressional investigation. And for a more compelling treatment of John Wesley Powell, I recommend checking out Simon Schama's chapter "American Plenty" in his The American Future: A History. Brand's work never rises to the level of astounding new insights into the American past. Without being a specialist in nineteenth-century American history, some of the material was familiar even to me. However, the author's achievement is to synthesize an amazingly large amount of material into a single book and still make it sound like a coherent narrative. I doubt the book will receive much praise from fellow academics, but as a layman's introduction to the history of the American economy, I am sure there aren't many books that can top this one.

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