A Country of Giants

by | Nov 10, 1998 | Literature

For any reader who shares Ayn Rand's philosophy and, crucially, her sense of life, these stories provide two inestimable values: a picture of man at his productive best-and a poignant reminder that America was once a country of giants.

AMERICA WAS ONCE A COUNTRY OF GIANTS. Whether it is Phil Hailey building a bridge across the raging torrent of the Spider Water, Jimmie the Wind hauling the west coast mail across the Rockies to San Francisco against an impossible deadline, or Whispering Smith hunting alone a pack of formidable killers plundering the railroad’s mountain division, Frank Spearman wrote of the can-do heroes who tame a wilderness, ensuring a transcontinental railroad’s operation through its most dangerous mountain stretches. These are men for whom Dagny Taggart would scour the roundhouses of a continent.

Spearman wrote turn-of-the-century railroad stories that there is reason to believe were admired by Ayn Rand. It is not difficult to understand why. Spearman’s first two books, The Nerve of Foley and Held For Orders, are collections of short stories. The title story of the first tells of a young engineer who hires on in the midst of a strike, the cool audacity with which he faces down the bullying strikers, and the expertise by means of which he saves the life of the strike leader’s son. No matter the obstacles placed in the hero’s path-belligerent and burly enemies, unfamiliar equipment, a sudden life-and-death emergency-he is the calm, unnerved equal to it. Foley is typical of the men who work the railroad in Spearman’s universe: tough, good-natured, gloriously effectual.

An additional point of note in this story-and in all of Spearman’s work is that, while always respectful of the honest labor performed by working men, Spearman is steadfastly clear that it is management that performs the supremely important and difficult tasks of operating a productive business.

In “The Nerve of Foley” this is shown by the way management assumes the tasks of the striking engineers. For a reader familiar with Atlas Shrugged, the story is reminiscent of Dagny’s words to the delegate of the Union of Locomotive Engineers: “If you think that I need your men more than they need me, choose accordingly If you know that I can run an engine, but they can’t build a railroad, choose according to that.” Though without any of Ayn Rand’s philosophical insight, Spearman nevertheless shows the monumental productivity of the great capitalists.

These characteristics infuse the best stories of Held For Orders, as well.

“The Road-Master’s Story”-the tale of Phil Hailey’s monumental struggle with the Big Sandy River, the “Spider Water” in the Sioux’s vivid terminology has the quality of epic. The river itself-recalcitrant, mercurial, eternal-irresistibly sweeps away all bridges erected by men to span it. And coming to face it in mortal conflict is its remorseless foe, Hailey, the self-made engineer. Hailey commits every moment of waking life to the attempt to master the deluge. He is Roark to Brodie’s Cameron, for his mentor, Brodie, was a brilliant albeit alcoholic builder of bridges.

Stronger than any man before or since he was for that work. All Brodie knew, all the Indians knew, all that a life’s experience, eating, living, watching, sleeping with the big river had taught him, that Hailey knew. And when Brodie’s bridge went out, Hailey was ready with his new bridge for the Spider Water which should be better than Brodie’s, just as he was better than Brodie. It was to be such a bridge as Brodie’s bridge with the firewater left out. And plans for a Howe truss, two pier, two abutment, three span, pneumatic caisson bridge to span the Big Sandy River were submitted to headquarters.

Hailey plots, plans, schemes his entire life for a bridge to outlast the Spider Water. And he constructs such a bridge. What happens to it, and to him, constitutes an Ayn Rand-like tale of the struggle between those superbly able to deal with reality and those who place other considerations before such ability. It is a tale that, despite its semi-tragic elements, highlights one of the two main themes that characterize Spearman’s writing: his worship of man’s productive ability.

Spearman’s heroes are first, foremost, and always builders. They create, construct, and operate a transcontinental railroad. Whatever the down-home 19th century modesty exhibited by some in their explicit statements, at a deeper level they are individuals enormously confident of their ability to achieve. They create in physical reality and they defend their creations against every possible foe, whether man or nature.

Spearman’s view of man’s metaphysical nature comes through clearly and powerfully in all of these stories. The men of his universe do not merely perform noble deeds of great courage, but more, their achievements are based fundamentally in creative work, not in warfare, gunplay or violence.

“The Yellow Mail Story,” the concluding entry in this volume, illustrates the other dominant theme that runs through Spearman’s writing: man’s capacity to take decisive action in the face of emergency. It tells of the quest to speed the west coast mail through the treacherous mountain division, to cut the time on transcontinental delivery service, and of Jimmie Bradshaw’s struggle to fulfill a life-long goal: to be engineer on a fast passenger run.

The train will average sixty-five miles per hour from Chicago through Ogden, Utah, promises Bucks, general manager for the West End. The consensus is that the schedule can’t be met, that the Rockies will frustrate any attempt at swift passage. And for awhile they do.

A tight curve at unrelenting pace, a sprung rail-and the Yellow Mail lays panting in a ditch with injured crew and a barely conscious engineer. The mail lies motionless and Bucks’ promise looks unattainable.

But there is a west-bound freight waiting on the passing track, and there is Jimmie Bradshaw, an engineer serving as fireman on the Yellow Mail, substituting for the drunken regular.

Jimmie Bradshaw, railroad man, swings into action.

He commandeers both train and crew, he enlists an unsuspecting Sioux hunting party, he blusters, cajoles and threatens-and he begins to move the mail.

The tale of Jimmie Bradshaw’s breakneck run aboard a hijacked freight train, of his stop-at-nothing, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way attempt to deliver the mail, of the wild ride that prompts the Sioux braves to dub him “Jimmie the Wind,” forms the climax of “The Yellow Mail Story.”

In telling the tale, Spearman provides a vivid picture of the human potential for undeviating devotion to a goal. As he describes it at the height of the wreck and the tension: “The wounded cared for the wounded, and the dead might have buried the dead; Jimmie moved the mail.”

A common technique of Spearman’s writing is to thrust his main character into an emergency situations wreck, a storm, a fire-and then show his reaction. Will he confront the problem head on or pass the buck to others? Will he rise to the occasion or collapse under the strain? Will he respond like a hero or a coward? The alternatives are inherent in the disasters and the main characters must make their choices. In our era of the anti-hero, it is a wonderfully refreshing experience to watch Spearman’s lead characters consistently take decisive action to resolve a problem; they fling themselves at an emergency, fighting it with the careful thought of a man of reason and with the inexhaustible energy of a man of action. His characters live and act in a rough and rugged mountainous division where life-and-death alternatives are constant, unremitting companions, and they both possess and exercise a dauntless capacity to choose survival, success, achievement, joy The author, though not explicitly philosophical, shows that unrelenting commitment to productive activity requires the greatest heroism.

These themes are presented on a broader scale in Spearman’s novels. The earlier of the two, The Daughter of a Magnate, tells the story of Ab Glover, the forthright, superbly able mountain engineer, of his love for Gertrude Brock, the feisty daughter of the Pittsburgh steel tycoon who has recently bought the road, and of the blunt, no-frills manner in which he woos her.

Although the courtship itself is told in the repressed style of the 19th century, it serves as an effective vehicle to showcase Glover’s virtues. When emergencies strike in the rugged terrain and brutal weather of the mountain division-and they often do-it is Glover that management turns to.

When twenty feet of water pours down Rat Canyon and inundates the track, it strands at the siding and threatens to ruin eight trains of fruit pushing east from California. A new track must be laid immediately; the engineer on the job says it will take forty-eight hours; the superintendent doesn’t know what to do, and wires Bucks. The response is terse and to the point: “Send for Glover.”

Glover dynamites the mountain into Rat Canyon, then proceeds to lay his track in time to save the California fruit specials. It is typical of his expertise in mastering the mountains. When Morris Blood, division superintendent, is lost in a wreck on the worst stretch of road in the Rockies, it is Glover who leads the search to find and rescue him. He is a giant of railroad engineering, in ways far deeper than his physical stature-and the most attractive quality of Gertrude Brock is her recognition of and response to his greatness.

The last book of the series, Whispering Smith, is Spearman’s finest work. It was made into film several times, the most recent being a successful 1940s version starring Alan Ladd.

The story opens with George McCloud, the young, new superintendent of the mountain division, firing the popular and powerful wrecking boss, Murray Sinclair. Sinclair, as all of Spearman’s railroad men, is supremely competent at his work and valued by his employers. He is an open-handed prince to his men, and they love him. But he is a plunderer of the very wrecks he clears, a grandscale thief who distributes the loot generously among his men. He has been wamed many times, including by Bucks himself, but his grandiose view of himself does not permit him to believe that the company can do without him.

In time, when it becomes clear that the decision is irrevocable, when Glover gives him the final word that he will never again work on the mountain division, Sinclair’s control breaks.

A pride grown monstrous with prestige long undisputed broke under the final blow. The big fellow put his face in his hands and burst into tears, and the men before him sat confused and uncomfortable at his outburst of feeling. It was only for a moment. Sinclair raised his head, shook his long hair, and swore an oath against the company and the men that curled the very smoke in Callahan’s pipe.

It is an oath that Sinclair keeps unto death. With some of his men he engages in guerrilla warfare against the line. He bums bridges, cuts the track, robs trains, and murders loyal employees. He leads a reign of terror against the road’s mountain division-and, as with everything he does, does it superbly. But his career of pillaging results in a fatal consequence. It brings back into the mountains Whispering Smith.

As his nickname suggests, Gordon Smith, special assistant to Bucks, is a soft-spoken, good-natured, peace-loving individual, who characteristically makes every long-suffering attempt to resolve problems through negotiation, not violence. But he will hunt, track, shoot, and kill you if he has to. In the case of Murray Sinclair, the man married to the woman he loves, he has to.

Although Marion Sinclair makes every impassioned attempt to keep her dearest friend from stalking her husband, Sinclair’s reign of terror leaves Whispering Smith no choice. He saddles up, armed to the teeth, and thrusts into the mountains, pursuing big game.

The story of the death struggle between Whispering Smith and Murray Sinclair, a battle that has far greater consequences for the hero than simply the fate of the railroad’s mountain division, is a clash of titans. Spearman’s sense-of-life belief in man’s stature carries through even to his villain, and the gunfights that resolve the issue embody distinctive brands of courage desperate on the one side, dauntless on the other. The upshot is a book that almost rivals lack Schaefer’s Shane as a tale of great men in conflict in the Old West.

As with many writers, Frank Spearman’s tales are of uneven quality; some are much better than others. The Daughter of a Magnate, for example, is weak on plot, long on sentimentality. But at his best, in “The Roadmaster’s Story,” “The Yellow Mail Story,” Whispering Smith, he tells riveting tales of genuine heroes, of powerful figures committed to the creation or defense of life-giving values. Because of Spearman’s manifest hero worship, all the books of this series-handsome, hardbound reprints from The Paper Tiger-make pleasurable reading.

For any reader who shares Ayn Rand’s philosophy and, crucially, her sense of life, these stories provide two inestimable values: a picture of man at his productive best-and a poignant reminder that America was once a country of giants.

This article originally appeared in The Intellectual Activist.

Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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