From RAILROAD HISTORY MAGAZINE, Fall/Winter 2018
In 1894, the United States came to a standstill as George Pullman faced off against railroad workers, led by Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union. Commerce halted, blood was spilled, and street battles raged. The Edge of Anarchy brings this epic struggle to vivid life in a readable, accessible fashion.
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The Pullman boycott was a cataclysmic event that has been well covered in academic volumes, yet little popular history captures the tensions between Pullman’s capitalism and workers’ struggle.
Kelly does a masterful job; his portrayal not only of Debs and Pullman, but other players – from Grover Cleveland to emerging lawyer Clarence Darrow – are well written. He contextualizes the times – which brought on only the Pullman confrontation, but also Coxey’s March of the Unemployed, and coalfield outbreaks. In 1892, Chicago showcased itself through the Columbian Exposition, but two years later, the empty fairgrounds became a mocking tableau of progress as bankruptcy and unemployment haunted the land.
Kelly deserves great credit for reliably sourcing his story. He avoids Pullman’s mythology, like the fanciful tale of the Pioneer running as part of slain President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train. Tension is built without falling to exaggeration. The author’s sympathy lies more with Debs than Pullman, yet the achievements and the failings of both are well covered.
The Edge of Anarchy is masterfully written and should attract a wide audience, whether the interest is general American history, railroad history, or labor history.
—Michael G. Matejka, Normal, Ill.
Editor, Grand Prairie Union News
★The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America by Jack Kelly Jan. 2019. 320p. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (9781250128867).
In 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago went on strike against their powerful employer, George Pullman. This set off the greatest labor action in U.S. history, one that threatened a true national strike. Kelly explores this event in all its conflict and confrontation. Workers, led by the indomitable Eugene V. Debs, rebelled against a company that had dictated their living conditions as well as their working conditions. George Pullman really believed he was a model employer, but he would not respond to workers’ grievances. Unrest spread from Chicago across the nation, particularly into California. Realizing the threat this posed to the economy if not the body politic itself, President Cleveland called out troops against the counsel of Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld. Yet even army troops’ loyalty was tested when they were asked to fire on their fellow countrymen. The strike may have failed and Debs was jailed, but legislation followed that protected worker rights. Kelly vividly portrays the personalities involved, from elected officials to labor leaders, and makes the tensions of the time quite contemporary.
— Mark Knoblauch