I have often stated that we are living in a golden age of good academic writing from historians, telling challenging stories that people are ready to hear in ways that lots of people can access. While it used to be that the only history books that had really great sales were Chernow biographies or popular narratives of heroic figures or war that made middle-aged white guys feel good about themselves, we’ve really moved beyond that. Heather Thompson’s great book on Attica reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and that is a story that makes no one feel good about America. Jill Lepore’s recent history of the U.S. by many accounts has problems–including that she has absolutely no class analysis and that Native people totally disappear–but it’s hardly a celebratory narrative that America is the best nation of all time with no flaws. Richard White’s books on the Gilded Age have done great. Lots of historians are on Twitter with big followings and thus even a few book sales because they are giving people real history that explains the problems of our nation.
Some of this has happened because unlike history written in the 80s and 90s, lots of historians are taking writing seriously and valuing narrative structure and clear prose. There are many paths to being a good historian and if you want to write for 12 other scholars tying your work to some obscure theoretician or something, that’s completely legitimate. But overall, this writing renaissance has benefited the field at a time when people are no longer taking history courses because society tells them that college should only exist to train you for a job that probably will go away in 10 years.
All this however is still quite different from reading someone who is a non-academic popular writer doing history. Jack Kelly is a well-selling author who writes histories for the general public. I got a copy of his new book on the Pullman Strike. Just to get this out of the way up front, it’s a good book and you may well want to read it. I will touch on this more in a moment. But what was really interesting to me, as someone who has worked hard to become a better writer and to tap into that growing market for well-written books that tell tough stories, was just reading it for the narrative writing. There’s still a really huge difference between this generation of public-facing academic writing and really narrative writing. No paragraph is longer than 5 sentences. Most are 2 or 3 sentences. There is much more space given to physical and emotional descriptions of people. Personal relationships are front and center. The story moves very quickly, getting the point across but without anything that looks like a deep dive into historical analysis that professional historians do. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. I follow what people write about my books on the internet–which does require a thick skin even though my work has always been pretty well-reviewed. And it’s funny how many reviews that are less than stellar do revolve around the desire for character and narrative rather than anything to do with substance. That takes real skill to accomplish, which I don’t have. And Kelly definitely has those skills.
The Pullman strike/boycott is something I know well of course. If you want a fuller overview, here’s my This Day in Labor History post for it. In short, workers in George Pullman’s factory town went on strike when he reduced their wages but not their rents during the Panic of 1893. Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union engaged in a sympathy boycott in support. That shut down much of the nation’s rail system. Grover Cleveland’s attorney general Richard Olney was a railroad attorney who fabricated a reason to send in the U.S. military to bust the boycott. Cleveland completely supported it. This was tremendously effective, Debs was placed in prison for contempt of court after ignoring a court injunction, and the power of the state was again demonstrated to be openly on the side of employers in labor conflicts during the Gilded Age.
When I was going through the early chapters, I thought Kelly was being a bit too kind to George Pullman and Grover Cleveland. But then as I went on, I realized he was letting these guys hang themselves, dribbling little bits of their awfulness as time went on. About Richard Olney, no one has anything nice to say, including Kelly, who places his unethical work for the railroads even while Attorney General front and center. This approach to the leading antagonists in the story is part of the story building that drives the narrative. As time goes on though, the character traits of everyone from Debs to Olney are slowly revealed. In the end, Pullman looks awful–a completely out of touch plutocrat so self-defined by his own righteousness and unshakable belief in outdated forms of contract ideology that brooked absolutely no place for compromise with his own workers or his unions. His belief that his company housing should make a profit for instance was above all other concerns. He believed it incredibly generous on his part that he had a profit goal of 6 percent per year on the housing and only actually made slightly under 4 percent, as if that was going to mollify his impoverished workers. And yet, much of the American power structure more or less agreed with his position on unions, if they wished he would compromise a bit. Every labor struggle was seen in the Gilded Age as the Paris Commune coming to the United States, no matter how reasonable and anodyne their actual demands. Therefore, major newspapers largely cheered the crushing of the strike. The New York Times, for instance, called Debs “an enemy of the human race.”
In the end, what the Pullman strike really demonstrated was how the nation’s power elite had one vision for the future of the nation that was based upon using abstract legal ideas about contracts and individualism to promote their own power against the vast masses of Americans struggling for better lives and getting increasingly desperate in their actions to do so. The dam would finally begin to break in the 1900s with the rise of the Progressives and enough fear of the Populists and anarchists, especially after one walked up to President McKinley and shot him in the gut, that at least minimal reforms began to impact workers for the good, albeit often requiring their blood and lives to achieve.
What you aren’t really going to get in this book is a deep dive into those deeper philosophical arguments that people such as Olney and Pullman believed in. But that’s OK. Most readers aren’t going to care, plus they are hard to fit into any kind of narrative because they are so arcane. Kelly provides enough of that to get by. What readers are going to get is a very well-written and historically accurate narrative that demonstrates the tremendous inequality and struggle of the first Gilded Age. As we are well-ensconced in the New Gilded Age, you or your dad or aunt or whoever likes to read popular histories would be well-served by getting a copy of this extremely readable and breezy look at event that can teach them a lot about both their past and their present, a useful counter to whatever histories they are probably reading instead.