But the dynamics of industrial capitalism destroyed the viability of the free-labor dream. In the book I instance an Akron, Ohio, butcher. He fits Lincolns ideal: a small proprietor who slaughters local beef. Then one day Armour, a pioneer in scale-and-scope production at its Chicago meatpacking plant, drives a refrigerated car into Akron, and holds a sale in the railroad yards, underselling the Akron butcher by a factor of magnitude. He cant compete. Scale and scope have put him out of business. If he takes a job at Armours slaughter-house, he moves down the class and opportunity scale from free labor to wage labor. He can still rise—but within the working class and only through collective bargaining. But for that hes got to wait until the New Deal and the rising tide of the postwar boom. Cheated expectations fed the violent strikes of the era, including the largest strike anywhere in the world in the 19th century, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which I chronicle in the book.
Scale and scope transformed not only manufacturing but farming. Mechanization brought continuous production to agriculture, and the railroad connected the farmer to the city and to the world market. Returns went to scale—to bigger and bigger farms. Lincolns farm laborer could not "put enough by" to buy his own farm—everywhere the railroad bid up the price of land. He could not rise. He stayed a farm laborer—or quit the farm for the city.
Still, the free-labor ideal survives in farming as propaganda. Preserving the tiny number of "family farms" is a justification put forward by the farm lobby. The Homestead Act was put forth by the Republicans as a supposed cure for the class structure congealed by industrialism. The idea was that the eastern factory laborer would leave the factory behind for free land in the west. But thats not the way it worked out. Why? Because the land was not free—$1,500 was the minimum needed to set up a farm as early as the 1840s. And that was three years pay for the skilled factory worker of 1900! Small farms weren't economically viable. So it wasnt the factory laborer who went to the farm, but the factory itself. Womens labor, child labor, seasonal labor—all the aspects of wage labor that the farm was supposed to cure became a part of farm life. That was a bitter social turn. There was no escape from industrial capitalism.
Thats interesting, because particularly with farming, these are issues that were still working through today—the small farmer versus the big farmer and buying local.
Thats right. Some environmentally conscious people are trying to uncouple us from the industrial umbilical. The environmentalist Bill McKibben is pushing a movement to cut the carbon tail of trucked-in food. He advocates abandoning the, as he sees it, false economies of scale and scope—false because they dont include the environmental costs of production and transportation. He thinks its a doable step toward saving the biosphere from global warming. One problem with buying local, though, is choice—winter salads suffer. Another is price. The Wal-Mart shopper cant afford to buy local. He depends on scale and scope production in agribusiness to keep food prices low.
One of the things I think is unusual about your writing is that it blends history—which can be a dry pursuit—with real rhetorical spark and style. Could you talk about your writing process? How important is wordsmithing to you as you write? How would you describe your style?
From the archives:In Memoriam: Peter Davison
A tribute to the Atlantic
's late poetry editor by former Atlantic
managing editor, Cullen Murphy.
History tends to be written—because of academic pressures—in a polished, professional monotone. I like a little more drama. At certain moments, intensification, foreshadowing, or dramatic juxtaposition. Also, you look for scenes, moments of action, that carry your theme: a racial massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, the gun battle between Pinkerton detectives and workers at Andrew Carnegies Homestead Mills. Little touches matter in a long book. Our late Atlantic colleague, Peter Davison, once told me that for a writer to use the verb "to be" is laziness. Ever since, I have tried to find better—livelier—verbs. I do not believe I use "very" or "astonishing" in the book—a record. I admit to using at least one "kind of" but no "sort of," an Englishmans arch tic that has no place in American writing. And in general, though I love em, I pare away adjectives and adverbs. Theyre for book reviewers, to display cleverness. Subject-verb-object—you cant beat that formula in long-form narrative.
From Atlantic Unbound:Flashbacks: "A Great Monopoly"
"America," Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote in March, 1881, "has the proud satisfaction of having furnished the world with the greatest, wisest, and meanest monopoly known to history."
For drama, you also need representative characters. My characters include Tom Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation in the world in the 1870s, and a "political capitalist"—a purchaser of politicians retail and wholesale. Even in an era when, as Henry D. Lloyd wrote in The Atlantic, "Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania legislature, except refine it," Scott stood out. It isnt every captain of industry who could bargain the White House for a railroad land-grant as Scott did in 1877. Scotts feckless attempt to drive John D. Rockefeller out of business helped to precipitate the railroad strike of 1877, with its bloody climax in the streets and alleys of Pittsburgh swept by Gatling guns.