The decade of the 1890’s in the United States was one of innovation and strife. The innovations involved many facets of life in America: industry, politics, economy, and society as a whole. The decade saw the emergence of multi-millionaires like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, the rise in power of organized labor, the Progressive movement, and the expansion westward. It was also a time of unrest in America, pitting unions against corporations and reformers against corrupt politicians. All of this and more is what H.W. Brands tries to make sense of in his book, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890's.
In the book’s prologue, Brands sets the stage for the rest of the story. In it, he makes comparisons between the 1890’s and the 1990’s and does so convincingly, comparing the lawlessness of Chicago in the 1890’s to that of Los Angeles in the 1990’s, or comparing Tammany Hall boss Richard Croker with former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry, both of whom being Populist heroes who rose to positions of power despite of the obviousness of their corruption. It is within these comparisons that the reader can draw on some of Brands’ conclusions: that the end of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw Populist movements gain traction, (the Progressives in the 1890’s and the conservative movement in the 1990’s,) that both those who saw America in a state of decline and those thought the country had the potential to be prosperous during these time periods were right, and that, in the end, America had and still has a resilience that can steer the country through a great deal of adversity and still come out on top.
The story begins in Oklahoma City in 1893 and details the land-rushing exploits of Fred Sutton as he races across the Oklahoma panhandle for a piece of land in a town called Wharton. From the opening, the reader is immersed in Brands’ prose. His storytelling
keeps the reader riveted despite the subject matter being scholarly and dry. Covered in the book is a wide array of subjects that allows Brands to paint a portrait of America at the time using fairly broad strokes, which gives the reader a general sense of the timeframe, but with enough detail to convey the message of each of the individual stories, giving the reader a lot to chew on, yet doing so in only three hundred and fifty pages.
What is also a great benefit to this book is a sense balance that Brands...