Writing the Rails: Scholar Richard White Gives Dimension to the History of the Railroad

Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Currier & Ives lithograph, 1868

Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, a new book by historian Richard White, is “smashingly researched, cleverly written, and shrewdly argued all the way through,” says William Deverell, the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. The book, 12 years in the making, is a “powerful, smart, even angry book about politics, greed, corruption, money, and corporate arrogance, and the America formed out of them after the Civil War,” he adds.

White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, spoke to Huntington Frontiers magazine about the way he balanced his own unique brand of storytelling with an equally creative use of historical data through something called the Spatial History Project, a collaborative community of scholars who use visual analysis and digital technology to identify patterns and anomalies in their research.

How should we read the book—as business history, environmental history, history of technology, or all of the above?

All of the above. I weave various strands of history together, so anybody who is looking for a sort of clean, direct narrative— in which one thing determines all—has probably found the wrong book. I attempt to bring in a whole variety of subjects that influenced railroads and show why they came to be in the late 19th century.

READ THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW AT HUNTINGTON FRONTIERS »

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