Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Road Builders

As Ayn Rand said about Calumet "K," this novel could be subtitled: This Was America.

Samuel Merwin, with Henry Kitchell Webster, was the co-author of Calumet "K," (1901) Ayn Rand's favorite novel. Merwin and Webster collaborated on two other novels, The Short Line War, (1899) about the struggle for the ownership of a railroad, and Comrade John, (1907) about a religious huckster. Both men also wrote novels individually, and I will summarize and review one of Merwin's best here, The Road Builders,(1905).

As with Calumet "K," a few years earlier, The Road Builders was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, under the title A Link in the Girdle. (As a sidenote, Frank Spearman's Daughter of a Magnate was also serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. It must have been a wonderful magazine back at the turn of the last century.)

The Road Builders is about the construction of an extension of the Sherman & Western railroad to the town of Red Hills, set in Texas circa 1875. The man in charge of the construction project is Paul Carhart, who accepted the job because "it promised to be pretty work, in which a man could use his imagination." The "prettiness" of the work was due to a number of complicating factors. First, the line had to be finished at breakneck speed, however shoddy the construction, in order to defeat another railroad company with designs on the same territory. The quality of the work could be improved at a later date. Second, the territory through which it was to be laid was a largely uninhabited stretch of Texas desert. All supplies, including water, would have to be carried along with the construction crew, and the line of supply would get longer and less reliable as the work progressed. Third, a strong river would have to be bridged near the end of the extension. And finally, the rival railroad company was expected to do everything in its power to stop the construction by legal injunctions, board room intrigue, Wall Street manipulations, or outright sabotage and force of arms. Carhart was given a "free hand" as to methods and expenses for the project. So commenced an epic battle of man against nature, company against company, laborers against employers, and even brother against brother.

The main theme of the novel is the art of leadership. Carhart is the standard against whom others are compared. He is literally "the spirit of the enterprise." His energy and confidence, his fairness to the men and mastery of the art of railroad construction inspires everyone else. When he leaves the site for a few days, the life seems to drain out of the laborers, and work slows to a crawl. Railroads are his passion, and while he is among them, all the laborers are infected with the same enthusiasm.

Ayn Rand's comments on Charlie Bannon, protagonist of Calumet "K," apply equally well to Paul Carhart:

"It is interesting to note that Bannon is not an industrial tycoon, but merely an employee of a building contractor; he is presented, not as a rare exception, but as an average man. I doubt that a man of Bannon's stature could be average in any society; and, in a free one, he would not remain an employee for long. But he represents, in its purest form, the characteristic which a free society demands of all men, on all levels of ability: competence.

"The story demonstrates in many skillfully subtle ways that that characteristic runs through the whole social pyramid. On the lower levels, it depends on the quality of the leadership involved in a large, cooperative undertaking. Bannon's leadership is the decisive factor in the issue of morale or lethargic indifference on the part of all the workers on the job. His self-confidence, his demanding standards and his strict fairness bring out the best in them: pride in their work, conscientiousness, energy, enthusiasm . . . . . Their potential virtue is like an inert, responsive mechanism that can swing either way; Bannon is the spark plug. They respond when they know that their best will be appreciated." (From Ayn Rand's Introduction to Calumet "K.")

Like Calumet "K," The Road Builders is light fiction. Paul Carhart has no inner conflict, he does not grow morally or intellectually through the novel--but the railroad grows under his sure guidance. All his conflicts are external, and designed to show his admirable qualities. For instance, when the superintendent in charge of forwarding supplies to the construction crew sends forward more excuses than supplies, Carhart journeys back to their supply depot, investigates the situation, and finds the superintendent is diverting trains and supplies to the rival railroad. He sends the man a note: "I am sure you will agree with me that I can spare none of these [railroad] cars, least of all to supply a rival line. And in consideration of your future hearty cooperation with me in advancing this construction work, I will gladly take pains to see that my present knowledge of the use that has been made of these cars shall not interfere in any way with your continued enjoyment of your position with the Sherman & Western." He shows good humor, even in trying and desperate circumstances.

When the rival railroad company cuts Carhart's line of supply by occupying one of the stations behind them, he is left without the rails and ties he needs to go on with the construction. What to do? He literally tears up a branch line of the Sherman & Western that is little used, and uses it for the new line. These and other events demonstrate his resourcefulness.

There is a subplot that does evidence some inner conflict in one of Carhart's lieutenants, Gus Vandervelt. Young Van, as he is called, is Carhart's aide-de-camp. Gus's older brother, "Old Van," is one of Carhart's construction chiefs. Old Van is "old school," and believes in one form of leadership: the whip. While Carhart is no pushover himself, he is a reasonable man. He is not the slave driver Old Van is. Young Van must wean himself from his older brother's familial influence to become the kind of leader Carhart is--because he knows Carhart's way is better. The subplot documents his struggle between these two strong influences.

A line from the novel, when the construction expedition was about to begin, sums it up very nicely: "There was about the scene a sense of enterprise, of buoyant freedom, of deeds to be done."

The book is of course out of print. However it can generally be found on any of the better used book sites on the internet. It is probably the most available of Merwin's novels.