The Author’s Corner with Scott Huffard

Engines of redemptionScott Huffard is Program Coordinator of History and Associate Professor of History at Lees-McRae College. This interview is based on his new book, Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Engines of Redemption?

SH: The book had its roots in a graduate seminar at the University of Florida where I explored the spread of yellow fever along Florida’s rail lines in 1888. This led to more and more reading about the New South and it really seemed like there was a dark history of railroad disasters that had not really been told. While southern historians had already noted the importance of railroads in the rise of Jim Crow, I felt that other aspects of the South’s railroad experience needed to be explored.

I also was in grad school during the depths of the Great Recession and the issues I write about in the book–about the power of distant corporations, danger of new connections, and importance of narrative to capitalism–were everywhere. A book is inevitably shaped by the historical moment in which it was conceived and Engines of Redemption is no exception. For example, at the same time I was reading sources calling the Southern Railway an “octopus,” commentators were calling Goldman Sachs a “vampire squid.”

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Engines of Redemption?

SH: In the decades after the Civil War, the South was transformed by the expansion, standardization, and increased connectivity and circulation of the railroad network. Boosters used these new railroads to support the New South story, that capitalism redeemed the South, but this story obscured the ways in which the railroad and capitalism were uniquely destructive in the region.

JF: Why do we need to read Engines of Redemption?

SH: It helps re-center big business and capitalism as key forces in shaping the New South era and it implicates these forces in aiding the rise of white supremacy and many of the era’s disasters and crises. We have seen plenty of recent works (the “New History of Capitalism”) that argue for the capitalist nature of the Old South but Engines of Redemption extends this story into the late nineteenth-century. One of the more resilient aspects of capitalism is how it writes its own history and creates the narratives–like the New South story–that sustain it. We are in a historical moment where we can now more critically assess capitalism and its many disasters and the book hopes to contribute to these conversations and fold new characters and events into the history of capitalism. For example, I write how Railroad Bill, a black train robber active in Alabama in the 1890s, was a fearsome embodiment of the dangerous forces of capitalism for white southerners.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: My interest stretches all the way back to my elementary school years, when I became obsessed with the Civil War. I grew up in Pennsylvania and got really into the narrative of the war and the horrors of different battles. The idea of a war fought on American soil intrigued me and I remember always trying to get my family to stop at battlefields in Virginia while we were on the way to beach vacations. I saw the South as this foreign and haunted space and I think this fed into my desire to study the region (and its dark past) in graduate school. Now I like how the South has a way of challenging some of the myths and narratives we hold dear about America.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: I am working on a project that looks at the biography and legend of the railroad conductor Casey Jones. He ran the Illinois Central’s fastest mail train and died in a wreck in Mississippi while trying to make up lost time. He has since become perhaps the most famous conductor in America thanks to a whole host of ballads and songs. How did this conductor become the most famous railroad man in America and enter the pantheon of American folklore legends? It should be a fun project to work on and I am excited to jump into more research and writing.

JF: Thanks, Scott!

The Gateway Tunnel Project and Donald Trump

Gateway Trustee Rich Bagger 
Amtrak CEO Tony Coscia
Senator Cory Booker
Senator Robert Menendez
Congressman Donald Payne Jr

Check out Michael Grunwald‘s fascinating article about power politics, partisanship, Donald Trump, and America’s crumbling infrastructure.  Trump is in favor infrastructure development, as long as it helps his base, his brand, and his party.  This is approach may be putting New York City, and the nation’s economy, at risk.

Here is a taste of Grunwald’s long-form piece at Politico: “The Tunnel That Could Break New York“:

By the end of the 40-minute meeting, it sounded like Trump was on board with the entire $30 billion Gateway program, not only the tunnel but a suite of related projects along the most congested stretch of American passenger rail. He delighted Gateway’s boosters by calling the tunnel vital for the economy, though he did note that it would be tough to get credit for, like an air conditioning project in the basement of one of his hotels. “Nobody’s gonna see it,” Trump told the group, “but you still gotta do it.” The politicians in attendance thought the president had even embraced an Obama administration commitment for federal taxpayers to foot half the bill. “Ask anyone on either side of the aisle. It was very upbeat, total agreement this needs to get done,” Christie told me. King describes the meeting as a love-in: “Not a single negative word, great body language, everybody on the same page.”

After the meeting, though, Trump asked Schumer to stay behind. He bluntly offered another deal, an offer suggesting he had a rather different conception of Gateway’s larger importance: Schumer could have his tunnel if Trump got his border wall with Mexico.

Schumer said he couldn’t make that trade. And ever since, the Trump administration has been doing just about everything in its power to derail the Gateway project.

Read the entire piece here.

Amtrak Offering Free Trips to Writers: Count Me In!

Some of my most productive writing sessions have occurred on Amtrak trains.  I occasionally ride the Keystone Line from Harrisburg, PA to New York City.  At 6’8″ tall I find the seats to be spacious and comfortable. I can plug in my laptop and phone while I work.  And the WiFi is getting better.

When I learned that Amtrak was offering free train trips to writers I was ecstatic.  According to this article at The Wire, two writers have received free rides and it appears that the Amtrak is interested in sponsoring additional trips.

Count me in!  If the good folks at Amtrak are reading this, I would love to be considered for one of these free trips.  I can offer regularly tweeting and blogging while on the train and a history of effective binge writing (which I hope makes me a worthy candidate).  I can also encourage tall people to ride Amtrak trains as an alternative to flying!

Here is a taste of The Wire interview with Julia Winn, social media director at Amtrak:

1. What will a long-term residency program look like?

A lot is still up in the air with regards to a future program. Quinn described it as “an idea dreamed up by Amtrak fans and customers,” and a lot of the details still need hashing out. “We would’ve never known until really in the last 48 hours what type of response a program like this would warrant, and we have been pleasantly surprised,” Quinn said, so the outline being formulated is very new. But the goal, eventually, is to “engage with writers several times a month.” There may be a “tiered approach,” though the specifics aren’t fully worked out, with the focus on individuals with a strong social media presence.  

2. How much, if anything, will an “Amtrak residency” cost?

Gross’s residency was free, and Quinn confirmed that the plan is to keep the program if not free, then fairly low-cost. But Quinn points out that the residency was “free to Jessica, not free to Amtrak.” When Amtrak begins offering this program on a regular basis, Quinn said “we need to weigh [whether] it’s a good investment on our end” – because Amtrak can’t just start giving away free rides willy-nilly. (Especially not when it has a significant amount of debt). It’s about building a “mutually beneficial relationship” with writers, according to Quinn, and ensuring that a long-term program is sustainable. For now though, the program looks to remain free, if limited

 3. What constitutes a “writer”? 

In other words, how will Amtrak decide who to send on its residencies? In the short term, as the program gets off the ground, candidates will be selected on a case-by-case basis. Quinn said that residents won’t “necessarily just [be] published authors, or people with multiple books under their belt, or [people that had] a publication tap them.” Amtrak, Quinn said, is open to people with a variety of writing backgrounds, because “the differences between a journalist, a published author, a blogger – those lines are continually blurred by the internet.”