A Sunday Between Wars

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The title of this book is heavily laden with irony. Far from a quiet interlude between monumental conflicts, the Gilded Age and pre-World I eras were marked by bloody confrontations and social upheavals spawned by the forces of change. America became an urban-industrial nation during this period, and the transformation exacted a huge toll of human suffering.

Ben Maddow examines the building of the great pyramid of American industrialization in a comprehensive and unique way. His focus throughout the book is the human cost associated with taming the frontier, laying the rails, manning the factories, and building the cities. Therefore, little attention is given to the individual excesses of the robber barons, the corruption of politicians, the romance of Western settlement, the controversy over free trade and high tariffs, and other conventional subjects that fill the pages of standard histories of this period.

The book is an earnest, skillful attempt to rescue from obscurity the lives and experiences of individuals who were tossed to and fro by the upheavals of social and economic change. Because it is written from the vantage point of those below, of those new to America and still poor, much of the text is taken from diaries, letters, and contemporary accounts by authors who will be forever unknown. To some extent, therefore, Maddow seeks to look back upon and honor the faceless and nameless millions who, in seeking to build a place for themselves, built a place for us.

Ben Maddow’s past career as a poet, novelist, screenwriter, director, and producer is manifest throughout the volume. He does not try to capture the reader’s attention and respect with convoluted conceptual frameworks, pedantic collections of facts, or stodgy social analyses based upon quantifiable data. Instead, Maddow structures the volume as a filmmaker might. An attempt is made to present a profile of this period through a series of images and impressions offered by a heretofore unknown cast of “actors.” Most historians use quotes from contemporaries to embellish their reconstruction of events and analytical narrative. The flesh and bones of this book, however, are people talking about how they lived and felt. The author’s own words are merely guides that set the context for the quotations and lead the reader from one piece of life to the next. The great chunks of raw narrative, often un-grammatical and disjointed, are nevertheless fresh and vivid.

The leitmotif running throughout the book is that the last third of the nineteenth century and the first fifteen years of the twentieth century were characterized by an almost frenzied, irrational quest to expand industrial production. To fuel the drive for profits, it was necessary to have a large pool of labor capable of working long hours at low pay that would be continually replenished by a ceaseless tide of new immigrants. This reckless, careening mania for expansion caused entrepreneurs, managers, and superintendents of industry to disregard how many workers lost their hands, feet, fingers, and lives in the quest for power and wealth.

Maddow displays enormous empathy for these victims of what was regarded as progress. Their sacrifice and suffering are not portrayed in terms of cold, aggregated statistics. Rather, the reader is offered a panorama of pain and courage told by the people who were mangled in railroad yards, spent their strength and youth stoking furnaces, dug for gold in Western mines, and were bloodied and beaten during the period’s violent labor conflicts.

The American Indians were perhaps the greatest victims of industrialization and expansion. As the iron rails were pushed across their ancestral lands, they fought a frenetic battle to retain what they regarded as their birthright. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and other plains tribes hated the Iron Horse and the accompanying legions of blue-coated troops. Thus, the warriors of these hunting tribes fought as their ancestors had also fought—by sudden, swift attack for honor and protection of their way of life.

Maddow constructs a curious, challenging conceptual framework for this section of the book. He suggests that these mutually incomprehensible cultures were not as contradictory as each chose to believe of the other. For example, the intensely religious Protestant and Catholic immigrants shared with the Indian a belief in a supernatural being who could be directly communicated with through earnest prayer and supplication. Both groups also had a great love of rhetoric as well as folk customs and placed a high value on gallant individual exploits and the ability to endure deprivation and physical suffering.

The author also regards the white and Indian attitudes towards property as essentially complimentary. Each society created hierarchies of class based upon diversity of wealth. The contrast between the Anglo culture of the mid-nineteenth century and that of the Plains Indian was not so great as believed. The whites broke the sod and fenced the landscape. The Sioux, on the other hand, battled enemies for dominion over huge tracts of land because of its hunting economy. Indians also had a reverence for the land and were outraged by agriculture. As Nez Perce stated: “You ask me to cut the grass and the corn and sell them, to get rich like the white man. But how dare I crop the hair of my mother.”

Maddow casts Red Cloud, the Oglala Sioux Chief, as the central character of this chapter. This great leader symbolized the Indian’s defiance, military skill, and oneness with nature. Red Cloud displayed his leadership in successful skirmishes against a better armed adversary. However, the book also skillfully shows how the brave man was seduced by the trappings of culture he fought against. In the final analysis, the resistance of the Indian was a futile, sometimes feeble, effort against relentless and overwhelming...

(The entire section is 2411 words.)