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Publisher's Summary

From best-selling historian H. W. Brands, a sweeping chronicle of how a few wealthy businessmen reshaped America from a land of small farmers and small businessmen into an industrial giant.

The three decades after the Civil War saw a wholesale shift in American life, and the cause was capitalism. Driven by J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and oth­ers like them, armies of men and women were harnessed to a new vision of massive industry. A society rooted in the soil became one based in cities, and legions of immigrants were drawn to American shores.

H. W. Brands’ American Colossus portrays the stunning trans­formation of the landscape and institutions of American life in these years. Brands charts the rise of Wall Street, the growth of a national economy, the building of the railroads, and the first sparks of union life. By 1900, America was wealthier than ever, yet prosperity was precarious, inequality rampant, and democ­racy stretched thin. A populist backlash stirred.

American Colossus is an unforgettable portrait of the years when a recognizably modern America first took shape.

©2010 H.W. Brands (P)2010 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Effectively, excerpts from the first-person accounts of Booker T. Washington, Black Elk, Jacob Riis, and others convey the drama of the time.... [A] fast-paced, engrossing narrative." ( Publishers Weekly)

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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8 Thoughts on 'American Colossus'

1. Maybe the best way to understand the first third of the 21st century is to learn about the last third of the 19th.

2. Is the Internet more or less consequential than the trans-continental railroad, the transatlantic telegraph table and Bell's invention of the telephone? Is our new post-industrial way of organizing work as big a change as the transition to the industrial organization of labor?

3. Would someone living in 1910, who was born in 1869, have experienced more or less change than someone born in 1969 and alive today? (Like me).

4. American Colossus is long - 23 hours and 33 minutes (624 pages). Took 3 kids' soccer games, one college hockey game, two weekends of yard work, a basement clean-out, and various runs, dish washing/laundry folding sessions, and about 10 commutes to finish. Multitasking is the only way (at least for me) that a book as colossal as Colossus gets finished.

5. Rockefeller (oil), Carnegie (steel), Vanderbilt (railroads), Morgan (money, finance) - it is these men who created our foundational industries. Brands' thesis is that capitalism and democracy are always in tension, that the concentration of capital necessarily requires the erosion of democratic ideals.

6. It's possible that one reason I enjoyed American Colossus so much is that if is performed by Roberston Dean, my favorite Audible narrator. Anybody who questions the quality of an audiobook experience should spend some time with Roberston Dean.

7. Part of the reason I love to read history is that it takes me so many damn times to get all the facts straight in my head. I have this "5 times" rule. I need to read about something 5 times before it begins to stick. Only after about 5 books on the brain, or 5 books on behavioral economics, or 5 books on the on the 19th century do things start to come together.

8. American Colossus is a great companion piece to Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life, as the both cover about the same time period but from opposite vantage points. Bryson explains the impact of the agrarian to industrial transition from the perspective of the home and its residents, Brands from the personalities and big events that drove this great transition.

What books on the past are necessary to understand the future?

31 of 33 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Blake
  • Portland, OR, United States
  • 10-29-13

Very good, not quite great.

This was my third H.W. Brands book, and I'm becoming a fan of his work. He does a great job of telling history via interesting storylines. I had just finished Battle Cry Of Freedom, and the Oxford US History Series doesn't yet have a volume about this period. I read somewhere that this book was originally going to be that book. I don't know if that's true, but American Colossus is certainly of equal quality to the other Oxford books. The Age Of Gold was a more engaging H.W. Brands book to me, but American Colossus is on a similar level.

The reviewer who argued that Professor Brands doesn't understand economics might make a correct point technically, but is denying the fundamental truth in the narrative. Democracy is the rule of the people, one vote for each person. In a prominently capitalist economy, the owners of industry hold far more power than one vote could get them. Brands Illustrates how this period, more than any before it in America, saw that balance of power swing strongly in favor of the prominant capitalists of the day. Brands does not take sides in this struggle, however. He merely shows how this shaped the America we live in today.

I think he tends to treat American presidents kindly, and this seems to be the case in his treatment of Grover Cleveland. His biography of Andrew Jackson also played things fairly safe.

Overall, a very enjoyable read and an excellent addition to an American history buff's collection.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • AR
  • Maryland, USA
  • 07-01-15

Exciting Period of History Deserves Better Author

I chose this book because I wanted a history of the U.S. between the Civil War and the modern age (ca. 1920). Surprisingly, there isn't much to choose from. I'm eagerly awaiting the book covering this period in the Oxford Univ. Press History of the U.S. series, but I have no idea when it's going to be published.

This book tells you what happened, but not much else. H.W. Brands is a prolific author of American history of many periods, from the early years of the republic to Reagan. He's an academic, but I don't know what his specialty is--to judge by his output, he doesn't have one. And that may be the problem.

American Colossus struck me as both superficial and quirky. Brands just doesn't have a very interesting mind, and his take on events is never striking. What he has to say never made me think. The way he looks at the rapidly changing American society of the period is also idiosyncratic. He discusses gays, for instance, but not women and the rise of feminism and the suffragist movement. Often he just disappoints, as in his discussion of immigration.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • KP
  • Buffalo Gap, TX United States
  • 01-21-14

American Colossus

The presentation was well done. The story covers more of the political nature of the period rather the business side. If you tuned to that aspect you'll enjoy the book. If you're not then you may be disappointed.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Betsy
  • Everett, MA, United States
  • 09-07-13

Differnt but Interesting

It is definitely a meandering book and fairly different than most history books, in a way I think more historians would dislike. But I felt that that approach served this topic fairly well. A survey covering the growth and change of the American economy during this time period isn't about a war or another easily charted even with a clear beginning and end. I enjoyed the different looks at the North, South and West. The looks at the high and low classes and how politics began to be wrapped up in economics in a way it had never quite had (in the US) before.

I think many are put off but the use of "capitalism" v. "democracy" and I agree that nothing could ever be so simplified (and our system of government, while flawed, is far more democratic now than it was in 1864). But I think in context it works because the point is explaining how this concept of capitalism sort of took over the country. Capitalism wasn't new, of course, but the US did drastically change between 1865 and 1895 and an event like the Civil War was probably more of a byproduct of the change than a cause of it.

It did have its laws. I felt more time could have been spent on certain titans like JP Morgan. And after thorough introduction of the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie they are sort of dropped for awhile. Part of the meandering narrative is that things do seem to sort of get lost in the fray. But a great many wonderful books have been devoted to those people.

It was an interesting topic. Some parts were better than others. But I really think it is worth it overall.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars

Disappointed

I was excited to see a book about the economic history of the US in the late 1800s but was disappointed when I listened to this book. So many books look at military or political history and to finally see a book about US economic history seemed long overdue. The book didn't proceed logically to me, in my mind the author rambled quite a bit. One minute you are listening to the Battle of the LIttle Bighorn and then the next you're listening to a story about the great Chicago fire. There is a definite political spin to this novel. For example the military campaigns agains the Indians in the 1800's are a subsidy to big corporations. On a positive note, the author includes many quotations from diaries, letters, and news articles which added a human touch that gave real insight into the thoughts and worries of the times.

8 of 13 people found this review helpful

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Strong narrative

With his usual narrative drive and extensive quotations from participants, HW Brands gives a portrait of the Gilded Age and the rise of the robber barons. Democracy and capitalism are usually described as apples and oranges — one a political system, the other economic — but Brands draws them in sharp opposition. He shows beyond question the way that free-range capitalism makes a mockery of democratic government.

As an overall history of the age, it’s lacking. Reconstruction is barely mentioned, and when it comes up, the focus is mainly on the effect of reconstruction policies on money. Most cultural trends are ignored. He misses a golden opportunity by severely limiting his references to Mark Twain: Twain was a perfect embodiment of the age, and nearly died on the shoals of capitalist envy. But he appears here mainly as the man who gave the Gilded Age its name.

Brands also steers clear of atrocities. Capitalism’s war on labor is described in exciting detail, but the far greater evil of white southerners’ war on freed slaves is only briefly touched on. In describing America’s imperialism of the 1890s, he includes only a brief mention of the atrocities committed by American troops in the Philippines. It was this very crime that turned Mark Twain from a self-satisfied expansionist into an angry and bitter opponent of imperialism.

But within the terms he’s set for himself, Brands makes his case. The robber barons — Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan — are all here; so are the champions of labor — Eugene Debs, Henry George, Coxey’s Army. And Teddy Roosevelt, imperialist AND trust-buster, cuts an imposing figure in the later chapters. While giving capitalism credit for some of the gains in living standards enjoyed by Americans, there’s not much doubt that his overall sympathies are on the side of labor.

It’s a pleasure to hear all this related in Robertson Dean’s smooth, deep voice. Once I got into it, I had trouble putting the audiobook down.

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not even about captialosm

it's not even about capitalism good book but some what of a miss leading title.

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    3 out of 5 stars

Not Fair to the Word Capitalism

Brands obviously disdains the way business was done in this era, but I think he misses the mark in his use of the word capitalism. He makes no distinction between Gilded Age crony capitalism and free markets. He is rightfully hard on the former, while observing no difference between it and the latter. The recounting of events is solid history. I just wish Brands would not lump this era of government-created monopolies with capitalism writ large.

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Good enough for what it is

The title of this book is misleading, it's a general history of the time period instead of one just about capitalism. This book was originally supposed to be released as part of the Oxford History of the United States but ultimately was released through a different publisher and instead the Oxford series released The Republic for Which It Stands a few years later. This book has it's flaws and really isn't up to the standards for the Oxford series, but I'm glad I bought it and it makes a decent substitute until Audible finally gets The Republic for Which It Stands.