The bulk of The Great American Railroad War is dedicated to Bierce, but Drabelle also details the efforts of another respected writer, Frank Norris, to settle the railroad’s hash. Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus is a thinly fictionalized account of the Central Pacific and its misdeeds; the book rivals the best of Emile Zola in its melodramatic fervor and political punch. That said, Norris departs from reality in his account of the crimes of the Central Pacific Railroad and its sister line the Southern Pacific, such as perpetuating the myth that the latter encouraged the infamous massacre of protesting settlers at Mussel Sough. Drabelle shows where Norris went astray for the sake of panache, thankfully without undercutting the value of his accomplishment. The Octopus remains, after a century, an enormously entertaining expose of American corporate greed and strong-arm chicanery.

Near the end of the book, Drabelle argues that, despite their successes, Norris’s and Bierce’s efforts against the Central Pacific Railroad suffered from “bad timing.” If only their crusade had come a decade earlier, the author argues, it could have done more lasting good, because it might have led to a reform of the “basic political structure,” rather than a momentary slap-down of a hubristic company. Those who believe that robber barons will always be with us will be left unconvinced. Still, the overall impression left by the enjoyable The Great American Railroad War is one of possibility rather than despair: here’s a model from journalism’s past that might be of use today. Perhaps a Kickstarter campaign to send Bill Maher and a team of reporters to Washington, DC with a specific target of corporate/congressional malfeasance to dispatch?

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Bill Marx is a contributor to CJR.