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Monday, April 16, 2012

book response: The Big Burn by Egan (2009)


Cover of
Cover via Amazon
I enjoyed Timothy Egan's previous book, The Worst Hard Time, about the American Dust Bowl and other, later president Roosevelt. This book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, has been on my "to read" list since it came out, but it's availability for my Kindle from the public library moved it to the top. Although the great fire of 1910 did not bring haze all the way to Washington D.C., the parallel political story was just as fascinating as the Dust Bowl.


It was thrilling to me to learn of Teddy Roosevelt's plan to liberate the Republican party from the robber barons. The "back to the future" political aspect of this book was especially poignant in light of today's debates, which are essentially the same 100 years later. The only way the radical Republican became president was because he was vice-president when the president William McKinley was assassinated.


Though he said publicly that little would change, in private Roosevelt wanted to steer the Republican Party away from big business and toward becoming "a fairly radical progressive party," as he wrote in his memoir. Loc. 566-67
Although wealthy himself, Roosevelt was appalled at those capitalists who only served themselves and exploited their workers and their natural resources.

"There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensitive to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune," Roosevelt said just before he became president. Loc. 592-94
One of Roosevelt's radical proposals was that some of America should remain unexploited and accessible to any American to enjoy.
In Wallace, [Idaho - jpu] Roosevelt made an appeal to the shared humanity of all Americans, a common plea in an era when the angry poor and the predatory rich were at each other's throats. Loc. 603-5
In an era of free-for-all capitalism, it was revolutionary to insist, as he did, that the "rights of the public to the national resources outweigh private rights." Loc. 625-27
Of course, the extremely wealthy objected to leaving a single dollar on the table. But Roosevelt's ally was another man of wealth who also loved nature, Gifford Pinchot.

"I object to the law of the jungle," Pinchot always said, a philosophy that applied to predatory capitalism as well as the unruly extremes of the physical world. Loc. 778-80
Why does Roosevelt's words seem so true even today? Is it that we still haven't learned?
People living in 1909 were obligated to the future, he wrote. "It is high time to realize that our responsibility to the coming millions is like that of parents to their children, and that in wasting our resources we are wronging our children." Loc. 1313-15
"The great oppressive trusts exist because of subservient lawmakers," he told the farmers in Spokane. It was a direct slap at Ballinger, seated a few feet away, and at Heyburn. "I stand for the Roosevelt policies because they set the common good of all of us above the private gain of some of us," he said. Loc. 1433-35
Egan explains the racial ugliness common then toward the Buffalo Soldiers who ended up saving some towns from this massive conflagration.

Books such as The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization were popular throughout the nation, not just in the South, and the sexual drive of black males was said to be uncontrollable when they were around young white women. Dark-skinned men were always "pulsating with the desire to sate their passions upon white maidens and wives," as the white supremacist senator from South Carolina, Ben Tillman, said at the time. Tillman was proud of taking away the vote from black men. "We have scratched our head to figure out how we can eliminate the last one of them," he said. "We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed." Loc. 1872-77
After successfully evacuating the town, after enduring a harrowing night inside a hot train, after hauling water buckets and setting backfires, the Buffalo Soldiers had saved Avery. Over the ridge, their comrades had helped get the women and children of Wallace out of town. Two towns, two missions accomplished. Loc. 3150-52

The highest compliment that the white majority was capable of paying these black soldiers was to call them "white," I guess "brave" or "courageous" were not permissible.

And the Seattle papers seemed equally stunned that the Buffalo Soldiers could perform so heroically. "I want to say something about those negroes now," they quoted a man from Avery who helped organize the exodus and backfire. "They were black, but I never knew a whiter set of men to breathe. Not a man in the lot knew what a yellow streak was ... They never complained. They were never afraid. They worked, worked, worked, like Trojans, and they worked every minute. I can't say too much about them, but I will say that my attitude toward the black race has undergone a wonderful change since I knew those twelve heroes." Loc. 3163-67

Egan points out how this nation was still a nation of immigrants, who fled terrible conditions at home and encountered terrible prejudice in their new home. Again, the more things change the more they stay the same, except Americans complain about Spanish speaking immigrants this way.

Such attitudes were typical in a decade when nine million immigrants came to the United States, and one-third of the population was either foreign-born or a child of someone born abroad. The Italian surge in particular angered those who felt the nation was no longer recognizable, had lost its sense of identity. And they hated all these strange languages spoken in shops, schools, and churches. The Immigration Restriction League, founded by Boston blue bloods with family ties to the old Tories of England, campaigned to keep "undesirable classes" from entering the country. They meant Italians, Greeks, Jews, and people from eastern Europe. "The scum of creation has been dumped on us," said the nativist politician Thomas Watson. "The most dangerous and corrupting hordes of the Old World have invaded us." It was not just politicians who attacked Mediterranean immigrants as a threat to the American way of life. Francis A. Walker, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called Italian and Greek immigrants "beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggles for existence." Another educated expert cautioned Americans against "absorbing the excitable blood from Southern Europe." Loc. 1943-52


But even fellow white Americans who sacrificed so much to fight the fires were not treated much better. One hero was Ed Pulaski. Congress, who was beholden to the robber barons, could not find a dime to fund the medical needs of men like Pulaski who were severely injured in service to their country.
In the end, Pulaski did not get a dime from the government for the ravages fire inflicted on his body. The reasoning seemed to be that since he went directly back to work after leaving the hospital, he was not disabled, and therefore was ineligible for compensation for lost work time. But of course the reason Pulaski had returned to his job, despite his serious medical troubles, was that he needed the paycheck just to stay alive. Loc. 3761-64
The irony that irritated me and was missed by Egan blinded by his devotion to Roosevelt and Pinchot is that these two wealthy men, who created the forest service which hired men like Pulaski to do such service to their country, did not step in and assist Pulaski either. This is the easily criticized stereotype of the American liberal. They were ever eager to spend America's money for the benefit of Americans, but unwilling to give from their own pockets.


Egan is an engaging writer, able to bring his readers from the political theater to the fiery flames in Idaho, from the political prostitutes in the nation's capital to the whorehouses and saloons of the Montana border. It's one of the better ways to learn history.
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