historian, author, film producer

Category: railroads (page 2 of 3)

Waiting for Hell on Wheels: AMC’s new drama on 1865 and the building of the transcontinental

I have to admit that I have been eagerly anticipating Sunday night’s premier of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels.” What could be better than the unheralded Anson Mount, one of the best Southern actors of our day, playing an ex-Confederate guerrilla looking for his wife’s killer after the Civil War in Nebraska, in and around the building of the Union Pacific Railroad and its rolling town of “Hell on Wheels”?

Nearly ten years ago, Mount played an FBI undercover operator in ABC’s short-lived Line of Fire. That show was set in Richmond, Virginia, and featured a mix of Southern characters much as Justified has done recently. Mount was simply excellent in Line of Fire, and so were the others (especially Leslie Hope), but the slow pace of the show and perhaps its Southernness did not connect with the audience. The Wire was able to capture for Baltimore much more of that city’s quirky and tough street life than Line of Fire could Richmond’s.

Hell on Wheels has already generated some controversy over what exactly the scene of the building of the Union Pacific might have been like and over the plausibility of the show’s mix of Union and Confederate veterans, freed slaves, Native Americans, immigrants, company executives, and town boosters. The Los Angeles Times reviewed Hell on Wheels and mistakenly referred to Colm Meaney’s character as Thomas “Doc” Duncan–it was Thomas C. “Doc” Durant. The picture of so many freedmen in the scene has prompted questions.

One controversy has erupted over whether Chinese laborers worked on the Union Pacific. The answer is no, at least not according to the Union Pacific records. Jeff Yang’s Wall Street Journal piece, “Do Chinese Pioneers Get Railroaded in AMC’s ‘Hell on Wheels’?”, examines the problem of what one commenter called “Asian invisibility.” I have found no records of Chinese laborers on in the Union Pacific payrolls in the 1865-68 period. The U.S. Census, while not the most reliable in counting some populations, recorded no persons of Chinese birth in Nebraska in 1870, nor any Chinese persons living along the counties of the Union Pacific Railroad. Yet, the U.S. Census counted even small populations of individuals, listing sixteen Chinese in Mississippi, two in Michigan, and seven in Colorado Territory that year. In 1870 the census listed 49,310 Chinese persons in California.

On the other hand, there is evidence of freedmen working on the Union Pacific as early as 1863. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, John P. Usher, reported that year that 300 “free colored laborers” had moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to begin working on the Union Pacific Railroad. His office had been “repeatedly urged to use its influence to cause as many colored laborers as can be procured to be employed on this work.” (see John P. Usher, Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1863, p. xix, in Annual Report of the Department of the Interior)

AMC’s promotional material includes photos from the premier, and we see the black freedmen prominently in them. It would help if we could gain a renewed sense of the vast displacement and movement that came from the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Freedmen moved all over and even out of the South. Historian Leslie A. Schwalm has described the movement of freedmen into the Midwest during the war in detail (see Schwalm’s Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest). It should be no surprise that racial conflict simmered just below the surface and broke into the open at Memphis and other places, including in the North. One white former Confederate’s railroad trip in 1865, and his persistent racially bigoted views, can be found in Stephen Ash, A Year in the South: : 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2004). Ash traces the story of John Robertson out of Tennessee in 1865 on his way to Chicago and then to Iowa, who finds freedmen in the depots at Nashville and Louisville and stewed that they “had forgot to get out of the way of white people.” Robertson’s annoyance at the changes all around him were further confirmed by his racial prejudices.

Whatever AMC does with this series, the Confederate gunslinging guerrilla played by Anson Mount should prove complicated. Given the recent scholarship on guerrilla warfare in the Civil War–which places the guerrilla action more at the center of the conflict and at the center of the Confederate national commitment–we might expect Mount’s character to carry the resentments and repressed loyalties of his lost cause forward. T. J. Stiles’s biography of Jesse James, for example, indicates how much of the Confederate national project came out of Missouri and continued to burn in the hearts of these men. Mark Geiger’s terrific book on Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War shows just how the motivations of Confederate guerrillas worked. Whether AMC will deal with the complex motivations and histories of race, white supremacy, and Confederate nationalism remains unclear. We will have to watch to find out!

In the meantime our Railroads and the Making of Modern America project includes some useful documents to put some of the AMC’s Hell on Wheels premier in perspective:

  1. Incidents of Guerrilla Warfare along the Railroads in the Civil War–Timeline and Map
  2. Incidents of Black Labor on the Railroads in the Civil War–Timeline and Map
  3. Photographs of black laborers in 1861-1865
  4. Payrolls record of the Union Pacific Railroad, 1864-1868
  5. Letters to and from Thomas C. “Doc” Durant” regarding the Union Pacific Railroad and Credit Mobilier

Miami University Lecture on Railroads and the Civil War

This Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecture and question and answer session was a blast. The audience and the board of the Colligan History Project could not have been more enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to Miami University Hamilton and was pleased to be part of a series on the Civil War, including David S. Reynolds (Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America) and Merritt Roe Smith (upcoming).

Miami University Michael J. Colligan Lecture Series, October 18, 2011.

A Fly, William Jennings Bryan, and Modern Politics–a discussion on C-Span

Last night I went on C-Span with Michael Kazin (Georgetown University) to discuss William Jennings Bryan. The C-Span series The Contenders looks at presidential candidates who did not win the office but changed American history. Bryan, of course, is their leading figure in this regard–he ran and lost three times as the Democratic nominee. Only Henry Clay ran as many times as Bryan, and one of his campaigns preceded the major party era in American politics. Bryan is nothing if not the greatest “contender” in American political history.

C-Span came to Lincoln, Nebraska, and we filmed live in the Bryan historic home, “Fairview.” The program is being rebroadcast on C-Span this week and is available online as well.

C-Span, September 23, 2011, The Contenders, from left William G. Thomas, Michael Kazin, Steve Scully

I had never been on live television in this way and the program was 90 minutes with call-in questions from viewers. There was little formal preparation. Neither Kazin nor I knew how this program would unfold. Fortunately, I had been on a panel with Kazin before and we had a good rapport. And the C-Span producers and Steve Scully, the host, were welcoming, professional, and enthusiastic.

It was a blast, until . . . a fly landed on my nose. In the middle of my answer to the second major question directed to me, the fly entered the picture. Not knowing whether to shoo it or not on live television, or whether in fact it was visible to viewers or not, I kept talking while it perched. Later, on the rebroadcast last night, indeed, it was visible to the viewer. So, my first dilemma on the set was whether to shoo or not to shoo. Who is that crazy professor waving his hand and swatting his face, I imagined viewers asking.

Kazin is the leading biographer of Bryan. His book A Godly Hero (2006) is the best account we have of Bryan’s life and politics. Kazin would focus on Bryan’s life and I would contribute from the perspective of 19th century history more broadly.

I do not want to summarize the program here. But as I prepared for this show, the language of 1894 and 1896 struck me as so very much like our political condition in 2011-12. The Populists’ Omaha platform in 1892 included a preamble that began, “we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” And the Populists rested much of their document on a kind of Constitutionalism and Americanism that today is also widely popular in the Tea Party. Of course, the Populists wanted to use rather than reduce government intervention in the economy–most prominently by calling for government ownership of the railroads. But their larger arguments, that the country was out of whack, that the republic was endangered, that Constitutional solutions were required, have come to the fore again.

More particularly, the current economic crisis has parallels to the 1890s, when a serious, sustained contraction brought down hundreds of railroad companies, banks, and businesses. In the election of 1894 for the Senate in Nebraska and in 1896 for the Presidency, Bryan championed a series of solutions–the graduate income tax, free and unlimited coinage of silver, lower tariffs and excise taxes, and restructuring the railroads. With the Democrats in office during much of the depression–Grover Cleveland was president from 1893 to 1897–the party could easily be blamed for the difficulties.

As a result, when Bryan called for an fairer form of taxation, the income tax, his opponent in 1894, John M. Thurston, could reply that Americans were not interested in income taxes, they were interested in income, period. The Republican message became: prosperity does not depend on extracting income from the rich but on adding income to the workingman.

More broadly, Republicans stressed American jobs for American workers, and protecting Americans from “pauper labor.” They offered a thorough-going Americanism and a determination to preserve American (racial, economic, and social) superiority. “Let other nations take care of themselves, we are not interested in their conditions.” Free silver, they argued, would devalue American stock, make the country more like Mexico than the U.S., more like a second-rate power than a first. The exchange, Republicans argued, would be like trading $1 worth of American wheat for 50 cents worth of Mexican silver.

Thurston became the Republican National Committee chair in 1896 and stumped the country for the party and against his old Nebraska rival, Bryan. “We have the eloquence of smokeless chimneys, of silent spindles, of rotting water wheels, of idle men, of cheerless homes,” he argued. Republicans would put fires in the forges and provide “American employment for American men.”

Today, Republicans are making similar arguments, and the party in power for much of the current recession, the Democratic Party, will face an electorate looking for answers to greater employment, to a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, to the cozy relationship that special interests have with government. We hear today similar accusations of “class warfare” against the Democratic Party as were leveled against Bryan over a century ago. Bryan suggested that the laboring classes were misled by Republicans, that the corporate interests at the head of that party did not have the workingman’s interest at heart, no matter how red-blooded or full-throated its Americanist rhetoric. But Bryan did so not by calling for class warfare. Instead, he attempted to infuse his language, his oratorical manner, and his policies with sincerity and with equitable solutions. These were not enough in 1896.

I would like to have asked Michael Kazin how his book published in 2006 might be different if he’d written it now after the 2008 crash and the Great Recession.

Even in a 90 minute program we could not cover all of the issues at stake in Bryan’s campaigns, nor their relevance today. The questions we received on the air from callers were so well-informed and interesting and varied that we were able to discuss much more than I anticipated. Watch the show online at C-Span, The Contenders!

We have placed online in Railroads and the Making of Modern America all of the speeches Bryan gave on his campaign swings in 1896. These are searchable. His speech for example in Hammond, Indiana, on October 7, 1896 focuses on the Australian (secret) ballot–the subject of one of our call-in questions.

The Railroad’s “Green Pasture”, New Media, and Digital Humanities

This week’s reading for our Digital Humanities seminar included Marshall McLuhan and Quinten Fore’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects and Helen J. Burgess and Jeanne Hamming’s new piece in Digital Humanities Quarterly, “New Media in the Academy: Labor and the Production of Knowledge in Scholarly Multimedia.”

Marshall McLuhan undertakes among other things a brief discussion of the railway and its social effects in almost the exact center of what one student called his “non-book book.” The railroad, McLuhan explains, “radically altered the personal outlooks and patterns of social interdependence.” He predicts that the “electronic” media in post-war America will have different effects however. The electronic age will produce not suburban worlds but a “circuited city,” an “information megalopolis.”

The railroad, according to McLuhan, created a mythic past even as it transformed society. Clearly drawing on Leo Marx’s 1964 classic The Machine in the Garden, McLuhan calls this effect “the myth of a green pasture world of innocence.” But, my students were interested in the way McLuhan’s polemical piece “runs into the other end of his own ideas.” One student suggested that McLuhan calls for a return to a childlike perception, exemplified in the aural not visual and in the non-linear not linear. Is this not also a green pasture? Does the way media “work us over” circularly create a green pasture?

So, much of McLuhan’s text and presentation rings true forty years later of course. These quotations elicited the most discussion not surprisingly:

“societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“all media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”

“in the name of progress our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”

The Age of Anxiety is “in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools–with yesterday’s concepts.”

To many of these students, we are currently in academe forcing the new media to do the work of the old. In fact, this is what so disturbed them about McNeely and Wolverton’s apparent disregard for blogs, wikis, and other forms of scholarly creativity. Pointing out that McLuhan’s celebration of the amateur had special relevance in this context, one student cautioned, “digital humanists ought not overly professionalize. Creativity, especially the creativity that sounds outlandish to professionals, is key to innovation.”

Although we did not have time to discuss the recent Digital Humanities Quarterly article in detail, students focused on the apparent paradox of digital humanities in tenure and promotion. How it is that Deborah Lines Anderson might argue ostensibly for counting digital work toward tenure in Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process, but at the same time define digital scholarship “as independent from the medium by which it is produced.” In other words, seeing tools only as a “means to an end” and privileging the “act of creation” misses an important series of instantiations or practices worthy of consideration. Using Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘hybrids’, Burgess and Hamming get us closer to understanding why we must reconsider what we mean by new media or digital humanities and how they relate to “the problem of genre and tenure.”

I found myself thinking anew about the railroad as a hybrid agent–something I’d been writing about and considering for the better part of five years. And further what constitutes a scholarly work and how to present that work, and how we need more examples of non-linear digital scholarship to break free of forcing the new media to do the work of the old.

So much scholarly media “relies heavily on graphical interfaces, navigational schemas, and visual layout,” Burgess and Hamming point out. We are building, in digital humanities, new interfaces to knowledge and information, just at the interfaces railroads produced shaped conceptions of time, space, and society–and were represented through Charles Joseph Minard with his railroad-inspired cartes figuratives. Railroads too changed the way we thought of the body and became an extension of the body. Burgess and Hamming call for a radical act of “performing scholarship” but their great insight here is that digital humanities and new media represent a significant watershed in the “materiality of knowledge production.”

We should look out for our own “green pastures” that come with the new media.

(A good part of our class time was dedicated to discussion about our iPad app challenge and this will be included in a later post.)