Friday, November 30, 2012

Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders (1905)

Samuel Merwin
In this exciting railroad novel, Samuel Merwin tells of a crew of engineers building a railway in West Texas. It is the 1870s, and the principle obstacle to the operation is not the Apaches, as you’d expect, but a rival railroad magnate, Commodore Durfee.

Plot. The engineers in the field are led by Paul Carhart, who has been charged with throwing down a road across over 100 miles of desert. When completed it will connect eastern Texas with a frontier town called Red Hills in the west. With the help of a thousand or two laborers, Carhart and his engineers have an ambitious job, including at mile 109 the construction of a long trestle across a river.

Meanwhile, Durfee wants his own road across the same part of Texas. It’s a bare-knuckle competition, and before long Carhart and his engineers find that their efforts are being sabotaged. Materials and—more important—water are slow in arriving at the work site.

Charlie and Carhart
A labor dispute springs up when the chief cook, Jack Flagg, gets the workmen to go on strike for higher pay. When he is fired for making trouble, he and a gang of ruffians are hired by Durfee to harass the engineers, stealing mules and leaving threats on hand-written placards.

The final crisis presents itself when word arrives that Flagg and his men have stopped construction on the trestle over the river. They have set up camp where the bridge is to come ashore on the opposite bank, shooting and gravely wounding the engineer in charge.

Character. Merwin uses this story to explore the kinds of character that produce leaders. Carhart is admirable in the way he handles everyone from his engineers and the cook down to the most unskilled workman. He inspires confidence and gets men to work without complaint by never losing his patience.

He trusts that men will do what’s expected of them if they are given proper respect. He trusts that reason will prevail if given a chance. He may be troubled and apprehensive when crises loom, but he never reveals his concern. He can also think out of the box and act with audacious daring when the situation demands.

Mule train in search of water
One of his engineers, Old Vandervelt, is worked into the story as a convenient foil. Called “Old” because he is the older of two brothers who are both engineers on the project, he is impatient and quick to flare up when met with any resistance. It is said of him that he once killed a waiter in a hotel for poor service.

Romance. Merwin once said in an essay that romance does not make the best kind of novel because it puts plot before character. In The Road-Builders there’s plot aplenty, but Merwin also wants us to see these engineers as men with distinct personalities. He’s interested in how they organize themselves to get work done and how the way a man does his job depends on his values, his attitudes, and the kind of risks he’s willing to take.

Engineers Tiffany and Carhart
Unlike other early-western novels, the existence of women gets very little mention. The president of the railroad comes out to the work site for a brief visit, traveling in his private car with his wife and two daughters. The three women take little interest in the work being done.

Getting even briefer mention are the “ladies” in the upper rooms of the hotel where Carhart’s workmen celebrate the completion of the railroad. There we find Charlie the camp cook taking pleasure in feminine company after being long deprived of it. Beyond those references, the novel gives us a males-only world.

Labor. Merwin doesn’t exactly overflow with egalitarian spirit. Class-conscious Gus, the younger Vandervelt, sees the workers as “children with whiskey throats added.” He seems unconcerned that there are actual children on the work site. The mule drivers are boys, as young as twelve.

When the likeable young instrument man is shot dead by Flagg’s men and the workmen gather for the burial, Gus looks at their “lustful, weak, wicked faces.” He wonders uncertainly whether there’s anything in them of worth and meaning beyond work, eating, drinking, and dying.

Antonio at the trestle
Style. Readers will learn more than they knew before about 19th century railroad construction, but the details are sketched in with fairly broad strokes. A visit by Carhart to the railroad’s main offices yields more in the way of specifics. Here a crowd of salesmen, agents, and job applicants waits for face-time with the chief engineer:

locomotive engineers, photographers, traveling salesmen of tobacco, jewelry, shoes, clothing, and small cutlery, not to speak of an itinerant dentist and a team of ‘champion banjo and vocal artists.’

Though it is a mostly lawless land and death is a constant threat, Merwin chooses to avoid bloodshed in the final comeuppance of Jack Flagg. Ready to shoot Carhart when he sees him in the streets of Red Hills at the end, Flagg happens to see a pistol already trained on himself from an upstairs window. It’s Charlie, the assistant cook, protecting his boss. Flagg turns and walks away.

Charlie at the window
Wrapping up: Samuel Merwin (1874-1936) was born in Evanston, Illinois, attended school there, and studied at Northwestern University. His early writing reflected a bent for reform, and he edited a muckraking journal, Success, until its failure in 1911.

During his life, he wrote numerous novels and produced a steady outpouring of short stories and serials for the magazines over more than three decades. He was an advocate of women’s rights and for 15 years he operated a playhouse in Concord, Mass. Several of his works of fiction were made into films during the Silent Era.

The Road-Builders is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and for the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Obituary, The New York Times, October 18, 1936.
Samuel Merwin, “Omitting Dickens,” The New York Times, August 29, 1915.
Louis Filler, The Muckrakers, 1968.

Image credits:
Illustrations from the first edition, F. B. Masters
Author’s photo, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, Jim Reeves


  1. Sounds like a more technically oriented story than some of the other railroad novels. Thanks for the review.

    1. Not so much, Oscar. It's more about people, sort of the way you find the story told in "Hell on Wheels."

  2. Interesting statement, that "romance puts plot before character." I'm gonna have to give that some thought. I'm not sure I agree.

    1. If I remember the context correctly, he was using "romance" to mean any kind of adventure story. But you can think of adventures that also have strong characters. He might counter by saying that strong characters are not necessarily realistic. They can be just as contrived as the plot. True, but like you, I wouldn't be satisfied with that answer.

  3. Another interesting fact about Samuel Merwin, he was the father of Samuel Merwin, Jr(1910-1996), who also wrote several mystery and SF novels. He also edited STARTLING AND THRILLING WONDER during the last years of the pulps and then went on to be associate editor of GALAXY for a couple years. He also edited MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE for awhile. Quite a famous father and son team for those in the know.

    1. Thanks, Walker. Father and son must have had some interesting talks about fiction writing, as Merwin Sr. had very "literary" standards, which wouldn't have squared with what Merwin Jr. was writing and publishing.

  4. The greed for land as a means to assert power appears to be a recurring theme in western novels including those revolving around mining and railroad stories. Westerns like these depict the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme hardships. Thanks for the review, Ron.

    1. There have always been those whose American Dream is to grab as much as they can get by fair means or foul.