Boosterism as history

Stephen Ambrose’s new history of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad is triumphalist history at its most beguiling. The story is exciting—the first railroad to span a continent; the largest engineering project of the era and one that joined the eastern, midwestern and far western United States for the first time.

The cast of characters is vast—from Abraham Lincoln to Grenville Dodge, from Theodore Judah to the Sacramento Big Four (Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Charles Crocker), and from the hundreds of surveyors and civil engineers who designed the railroad to the thousands of workers, Irish and Chinese, Union and Confederate veterans, who laid down the tracks and pounded in the spikes.

Ambrose is an old and talented hand at writing exciting narrative history. The author of 22 previous books—including Citizen Soldiers, Americans at War and the brilliant Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition—he invariably brings passion and insight to his subjects.

Why, then, is Nothing Like It in the World such a disappointment? Partly because he adds nothing new to the story; partly because his writing frequently degenerates into crude boosterism; but mostly because the story he tells is just too triumphalist, extolling the virtues of the railroad and its builders and largely ignoring the enormous human costs that accompanied its construction, especially to the Plains Indians who got in the railroad’s way.

Take his writing style. It’s all very well to admire the strength and stamina of the men who did the heavy labor, but a passage such as this is unforgivable: “Their waists were generally thin, but oh those shoulders! Those arms! Those legs!” Elsewhere he seems to be striving to emulate the language of the citizen grunts of World War II whom he so rightly admires. There is a plethora of unnecessary “damns” and “hells” and references to “those guys,” which tends to create a curious impression of blurred anachronism, as if the author were writing for a 1946 issue of True magazine.

Almost all of Ambrose’s heroes were Indian haters. “We’ve got to clean the damn Indians out or give up building the Union Pacific Railroad. The government may take its choice,” wrote General Grenville Dodge, the driving force behind the Union Pacific. Chief surveyor for the UP, Arthur Ferguson, was even more direct: “I have no sympathy for the red devils … May their dwelling places and habitations be destroyed. May the greedy crow hover over their silent corpses. May the coyote feast upon their stiff and festering carcasses, and the sooner the better.”

The book’s incessant boosterism becomes tiresome: “Americans were a people such as the world had never before known. No one before them, no matter where or how they lived, had such optimism or determination.” A trite comment that possesses the added disadvantage of being completely unprovable. What, for example, of the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée as they marched close to 100 miles a day to defeat the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz? Surely their optimism and determination matched that of American railroad builders.

Perhaps Americans, and especially Californians, have been contemplating their own navels far too long; perhaps we have become too engrossed with the powerless, the marginal and the mute. America is a great country. What’s wrong with celebrating that fact?

Nothing. Still, patriotic celebration should be distinguishable from historical discourse. Historical triumphalism, on gaudy display in Ambrose’s latest book, is not necessarily incorrect. But it is necessarily incomplete.