book response: American Colossus by Brands (2010)

While I was watching the entertaining and informative History channel series The Men Who Built America, I wanted to hear more from one of the regularly consulted historians on the show, H. W. Brands. I found this book of his at my local library and spent the past few weeks enjoying it. My first mistake was expecting it to be just like the television show. Brands' focus is not just on the big name capitalists of the American Gilded Age, but also on the little people, the workers, some by name, who made the capitalists rich, who opposed the capitalists, and who exposed the capitalists. He also wove in and out the on and off again relationship of the government and the capitalists. The sub-title, The Triumph of Capitalism, is not very indicative of the theme of the book. While he does mention the different economic models attempted in America in the late 1800's, share-cropping (serfdom), socialism, and communism, he doesn't spend enough time in this massive book showing how capitalism prevailed. Some of his chapters have very little to do with the triumph of capitalism. For example, his discussion of ethnic neighborhoods in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago was very interesting, as well as his short discussion on the homosexual neighborhood in NYC, but I didn't make any connection to the proposed theme of the sub title. Another diversion is the architectural developments in the post-fire Chicago. Again, I found it extremely interesting, but not informative on the topic of American capitalism. The concluding chapter of the book is all too brief as it mentions all the indicators of the improved quality of life Americans saw over 50 years, but leaves so many more stones unturned. I think he did not give enough time to the impact of government on those improved qualities either. He spent more time on the failure of the government to protect the masses to serve the few than the many ways it did succeed. As with any book, it is just one book. It points to many directions for the history student to explore, which I certainly will.
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