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The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad Hardcover – August 21, 2012

3.8 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"A nicely crafted portrait of monopolists and muckrakers."―Kirkus Reviews

"Drabelle has succeeded in the most lively way."―The Washington Post

About the Author

DENNIS DRABELLE is author of Mile-High Fever. He has written for multiple publications and is currently a contributing editor and a mysteries editor for The Washington Post Book World. In 1996 he won the National Book Critics Circle's award for excellence in reviewing. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; First Edition edition (August 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312667590
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312667597
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #778,383 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book is about the transcontinental railway and the perfidious behavior of the robber barons who built it. It is, next, about Ambrose Bierce, the journalist who publicly pounded into disrepute these men and their conduct. Finally, it is about Frank Norris, the novelist who, in THE OCTOPUS, transformed the scandal of the railroad builders into a triumph of literature.

The trouble is, the Drabelle book isn't very good. This is so, in large part, because his writing style cheapens and demeans the narrative. It is hard to take seriously a "history" book in which (to note only a few examples) the terms "mouthed off"; "chuckleheads"; "a way of lucking out"; "covered his derriere"; "aced itself out"; and "make nice with ... Brigham Young" stain so many pages.

The book falls well below the level of popular history and embeds itself in sarcasm and snide. These are treatments the robber barons likely deserved and, in fact, received from Amrose Bierce. But the Drabelle attempt to emulate Bierce is sophomoric.

To be fair, while the chapters on the railroads are a degree or so above mediocre, those about Bierce are bit better than that. And the meandering chapters on Norris are at least written in prose more respectful of the reader. So, yes, there are some flashes of decent among this drizzle of approximately average. But the main strength of this work is to move the reader to search out serious and much better books on the same topics.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Corporate chicanery is nothing new. In fact, as Dennis Drabelle deftly explains in this hugely entertaining book, things used to be much worse! What the Central Pacific Railroad pulled off (or attempted to pull off) was simply audacious. And the way two great writers exposed the railroad was equally audacious. Highly recommended for anyone interested in American history, railroads, journalism - or finding out that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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Format: Hardcover
The Great Railroad War details the excesses and machinations of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) with an emphasis on the efforts of two fascinating writers who opposed the railroad: Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris. The book shows how Bierce and Norris battled the railroad and its proponents, sometimes losing, but never giving up. Drabelle's early chapters situate the reader in the midst of the turbulent and corrupt Gilded Age. In gripping prose Drabelle reveals how the Big Four of the CPR--Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker--conceived and constructed their railroad empire through devious methods, government subsidies, astute connections, and sheer hubris. Some of the best chapters explore Bierce's intriguing life, though the focus even in those excellent sections is rightly on Bierce's insightful writing and wide array of muckraking activities (especially those working with Hearst to derail the Railroad Refinancing Bill in 1896). Drabelle brilliantly connects Bierce and Norris's work against the Octopus's corrupt practices (and startling levels of greed and arrogance), while at the same time chronicling and occasionally humanizing many of those on the opposite side. In addition, a reader can't help but note the resounding parallels to contemporary debates about the corporate regulation and of the influence of special interests on American governance.

As a historian of this period myself, and one who often finds popular history lacking, I am pleased to say that Drabelle does an excellent job of getting the details and atmosphere right for this period. He clearly did comprehensive research. Well written, thought provoking, and dealing with an important yet not well known subject, Dennis Drabelle's Great Railroad War is a superb read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are expecting to find out about the intricacies of the planning, building and corruption surrounding the first railroads to cross the United States, this may not be the place to look. Although it does present some of the facts surrounding this immense project, the book is predominantly about the lives and careers of Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris. Bierce was definitely in the thick of it, Norris not so much.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book definitely will expand your vocabulary, which is a good thing. I'm not sure I am a fan of the author's style of writing as I found it a little hard to follow at times. The book is packed with interesting and informative information on the subject matter. Overall the book expanded my knowledge of the gilded age of railroads and I have recommend with book to my friends. Even those with no interest in trains.
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Format: Hardcover
Many books try and tell the story of America, and many succeed. Few however, can tell America's history in such a personal, poignant way. The Great American Railroad War tells the history of America's railroad, more specifically the Central Pacific Line, through the eyes of two great writers, Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris. Instead of a lengthy list of facts about revenue and operations, author Dennis Drabelle tackles the greed and corruption of railroad barons through the words of contemporary literature.

Dennis Drabelle's tale of railroads is genuinely fun to read. By taking a literary approach instead of business approach, the personality and humanity of the characters shines through on every page.

The only issue with the book is the sheer number of characters involved. As soon as the book opens names are thrown at the reader, and without some prior knowledge of major players in the Central Pacific Line railroad, it can be challenging to keep track of everyone.

The Great American Railroad War makes history fun, and is a joy to read through all at once or in little bites.
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