Monday, March 26, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 11

Welcome to Week 11 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and I'm finding the pace deligtful. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. This week is a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight and nine, and ten.)

My thoughts: Chapter 11, entitled "Robber Barons and Rebels," focuses on industrialization, the corresponding shifts in populations, and the rise of workers rights. On a personal note, there is something guilt-inducing about reading about the rise of the workers rights movement while on a blissful nine-day paid staycation.

Here are my favorite tidbits and trivia from this (long) chapter:
  • I'm oddly fascinated by population shifts: "Between 1860 and 1914, New York grew from 850,000 to 4 million, Chicago from 110,000 to 2 million, Philadelphia from 650,000 to 11⁄2 million."
  • A nice summation of this chapter (and book as a whole): "And so it went, in industry after industry—shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies."
  • The Supreme Court was frightening: In 1886 alone, "the Court did away with 230 state laws that had been passed to regulate corporations."
  • There were people paying attention and making sense, like Henry George: "His book Progress and Poverty argued that the basis of wealth was land, that this was becoming monopolized, and that a single tax on land, abolishing all others, would bring enough revenue to solve the problem of poverty and equalize wealth in the nation."
  • "It was a time when revolutionary organizations existed in major American cities, and revolutionary talk was in the air." I have trouble imagining what that would look like today.
  • A dirty truth about immigration: "There were 51⁄2 million immigrants in the 1880s, 4 million in the 1890s, creating a labor surplus that kept wages down. The immigrants were more controllable, more helpless than native workers; they were culturally displaced, at odds with one another, therefore useful as strike-breakers."
  • "The year 1893 saw the biggest economic crisis in the country’s history. After several decades of wild industrial growth, financial manipulation, uncontrolled speculation and profiteering, it all collapsed: 642 banks failed and 16,000 businesses closed down. Out of the labor force of 15 million, 3 million were unemployed."
As interesting as this chapter was, the best connections I found to this book were in a very different place this week. I'm also a big fan of NBC's reality show (and the only network, prime time show to regularly feature librarians!), Who Do You Think You Are? where famous people research their genealogy. As I tell Mr. Nomadreader, the fact that it's celebrities has little impact on me, I would watch anyone research genealogy on television. Regardless, I was watching Reba McEntire's episode this week, and she sought out to find which of her ancestors were the first to arrive in the United States and when they arrived. The answer was quite fascinating, as they were able to trace her family history quite far back. For Reba, her ancestor arrived as an indentured servant at the shockingly young age of 9. It was a tragic beginning, but he did go on to be a large landowner with (correspondingly) a large number of slaves. What I found particularly compelling, however, was how each ancestor mentioned was straight our of this book. It's giving me a larger framework of history, and it makes Who Do You Think You Are? even more fascinating.

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation.

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  1. The 13 1/2 hour work days were a shocker. I knew we didn't always have 8 hour days, or 5 day work weeks...but 13 1/2 hours?? Yowza.

    1. I know! And to think some people still voluntarily subject themselves to those hours. I, for one, am very grateful for a 40 hour week and paid vacation time.

  2. I love the way you summarize the interesting bits with bullet points. It gives me a good picture of what's been going on with this one, because frankly, I became very bored with it and stopped reading. A lot of it, I think, has to do with Zinn's style. For those who are used to reading novels and a lot of fiction, he can be a bit terse and likes to pounce on points over and over again. I wish I had done better with this one!

    1. Zibilee--I concur about it being completely non-narrative. I'm enjoying it, but I don't think I could make it if I were just reading it. Reading one chapter once a week in one sitting is the perfect balance for me.

  3. I'm hereby nominating you as our official post writer! You do such a good job of summarizing the chapters and hitting the high notes. I get so bogged down by the sheer number of facts that I start to lose focus a bit. That was fascinating about the Reba history -- it would illuminate so much of what we are learning about. Though I would have thought that it was unusual for someone who started as an indentured servant to end up as a landowner. (As Zinn says in one of these chapters, the typical Horatio Alger rags to riches story is largely a myth.)

    1. Thanks, Jenners! The Reba episode was fascinating. It was quite rare for it to work out that way, but I think he was lucky enough (and young enough) and so early to this country he was fortunate. I loved being able to exclaim with the historians and archivists "I knew that!" as they explained what it all meant to Reba. So fun, in the nerdiest of ways!


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!