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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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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?

24 of 25 people found this review helpful

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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.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • KTP
  • 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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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.

7 of 12 people found this review helpful

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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.

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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.

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  • Douglas
  • Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 02-16-14

Excellent History of the Period

What made the experience of listening to American Colossus the most enjoyable?

Brands does a good job of alternating stories from chapter to chapter. When you've heard enough about a certain topic he switches to a different one.

What was one of the most memorable moments of American Colossus?

The story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

What aspect of Robertson Dean’s performance would you have changed?

Dean is solid. He plays it pretty straight and serious, which is usually good for a history. His style fit this book well. He doesn't usually change inflection and that can be a problem when there are a lot of "general" quotes. By that I mean, it isn't immediately obvious that it's no longer the author's words. In those situations it sometimes helps to have a narrator that knows how to make the switch clear.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

I wouldn't make a film of this book because it's just a general history of the time period.

Any additional comments?

This is a great read if you are interested in history and enjoy hearing the details of certain times and places.

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  • Anonymous
  • Wheat Ridge, CO, United States
  • 01-26-12

interesting but unfocused

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

Although Brands makes the questionable claim that capitalism thrives on inequality, and although he pits democracy against capitalism, this book is certainly not biased against capitalism. I initially thought that Brands would portray all capitalists as criminals, and overlook industries' positive contributions to society, but instead he gives a very balanced account of the impact that large corporations had on society.<br/><br/>Also Brands has a knack for giving interesting and funny accounts of scandals or strange incidents. Stories of conspiracies by speculators like Gould on Black Friday (Gould manipulated Gold prices) are the best part of this book.<br/><br/><br/>

What was most disappointing about H. W. Brands’s story?

Parts of this book are just hard to follow and there is too much detail . For instance, Brands account of the cattle industry left me with only a vague appreciation of its impact on the American economy or society, because there was so much detail. That being said, I listen to audiobooks while I exercise and sometimes I'm distracted. <br/><br/>Also, Its not clear why Brand covers certain presidential elections and certain presidents in much greater detail than others. He basically ignores Grants - which I find puzzling.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • David
  • warren, AR, United States
  • 11-30-10

The mismeasure of of an economic system.

Firstly, this was an interesting read. The research and narrative style made this title entertaining and informative. I love American history and the period covered here is one of the most exciting. That said, this book suffers from several fatal flaws.

The most serious problem is that the author misunderstands capitalism (I have read Wealth of Nations and every other title on economic systems available on audible, as well as others). I can say definitively this author has not, or has not understood them. This is evident from the first paragraph where the author pits capitalism as an incompatible antagonist to liberty. Sad considering the subject matter here.

Another issue with this book is that it is a bit disjointed. There is not strict adherence to chronology, which will likely be confusing to the casual reader and is a distraction in a history book. The vignettes are rather large and the transitions between them are sometimes disjointed. The scale of content, from fine details to large overview, is constantly changing in order to suit the perspective and conclusions the author wishes to impute.

Lastly, a number of sections seem to have absolutely nothing to do with capitalism.

In summary, if you love American history as much as I do, this book is probably worth a listen. But Brands quickly proves he is a competent (not outstanding) historian, not an economist. The book has the feel of a rough draft and suffers in comparison to works of master storytellers like Ambrose, Shirer or McCullough. Nevertheless, the content is intersting and the rendition is better than many.

11 of 22 people found this review helpful