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The Genesis of Industrial America, 1870–1920 (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 50, Number 1, January 2009
pp. 222-223 | 10.1353/tech.0.0212

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This is a short, synthetic text by the prolific railway and business historian Maury Klein. It chronicles the rise of big business during the half-century following the Civil War and asserts the centrality of business to the broader narratives of American history. Klein calls nineteenth-century America a “hothouse” for economic growth, blessed with fertile land and free men of courage and ambition. He attributes the rise of American business to four “revolutions”: first the technological revolutions in power, transportation, and communication, and finally the organizational revolution of the corporation and the spread of a corporate ethos into nearly every aspect of American life.

The Genesis of Industrial America is designed for adoption in undergraduate surveys, and by that genre’s standards of concision and narrative drive it succeeds in its aims. Klein tells his story in a tidy 200 pages. The prose is brisk, lively, and readable, leavened with quotations from novels and vivid profiles of business leaders like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould. But as a synthesis of business history literature likely to reach an audience beyond the field, the book is disappointing. The majority of sources listed date from the 1970s or earlier—much earlier in many cases—and an old-fashioned determinism suffuses the text.

“Like it or not,” Klein begins, big business is “the dominant force in American culture.” “Like it or not,” he repeats two pages later, “the corporate economy and the organizational society [have] come to stay” (pp. 1, 3). The phrase “like it or not” appears four times in the book; the sentiment is repeated far more often. The Genesis of Industrial America describes the rise of big business as inevitable and unalterable. Few choices are made, no alternative paths of development are available, and contingencies are rarely discussed. Though Klein rightly puts technology at the center of his story, his treatment of technological change pays little heed to a generation of scholarly pushback against determinism. Inventions appear and create change. They are not meaningfully shaped by their context, and they are neither socially nor politically constructed. The only sustained conflict in this narrative is a preordained fight between courageous entrepreneurs who correctly intuit the direction of history and nameless others who cling timidly to the past. There are no women to speak of. Consumers are acted upon but never actors. There is no discussion of race or religion or section in the development of American capitalism, and little of politics and law. The labor movement gets one page.

The United States may well have been a “hothouse” for corporations, but Klein does not develop the most promising part of this metaphor. A hothouse is, after all, an artificial environment designed to produce rapid growth. One might use this idea to talk about the political economy of the Gilded Age, and the key role of governmental institutions and public policies like tariffs, the gold standard, or the federal courts in shaping both technological and economic change. In The Genesis of Industrial America, government is passive and reactive. Its primary contribution to economic development is to get out of the way.

Business and technology ought to be more central to the teaching and writing of American history. There ought to be slim paperbacks suitable for adoption in survey courses that explain the rationalization of the railroad industry or the distinction between alternating and direct current as clearly and readably as Klein does here. But as a synthesis, his book does no justice to the best work in the histories of technology and business over the last thirty years. One reason that American historians have been slow to integrate business history is a misapprehension that the subfield is overly deferential to business, insensitive to contingency, and uninterested in questions of power, politics, and culture. This perception is quite wrong and has been for some time, but, “like it or not,” nobody will be convinced of that by reading this particular book.

Robert MacDougall  

Dr. MacDougall, assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, is completing a book about nineteenth-century telecommunications.

Copyright © 2009 The Society for the History of Technology
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