This is an investigation of the process of the “fetishizing of goods.” Hardman seeks to show how myth and ritual were mobilized in the nineteenth century to mediate between material progress and states of mind, to convert potential public fear and rejection into delight and acceptance. The railroad is his principal paradigm—he has pieced together scattered and curious evidence: for example, the astonishment that the train provoked by its phantasmagoric arrival and departure. He interprets the grandiose international expositions of the second half of the century, beginning with the Crystal Palace in 1851, as attempts on the part of bourgeois propagandists for modernity and industrialism to bemuse the public, to obtain their collaboration in constructing a world bound together by capitalism and colonialism.

The evocative power of the train was astonishing and ubiquitous in nineteenth-century writing. Hardman barely notices its material consequences—its essential role, for example, in delivering the mountains of munitions that would make total war possible; instead, he casts his own spells, a sort of exorcism of a past fondly remembered. The “precocious archeological ruins” of capitalism have become, not memorials to those immolated in them, but romantic legends. The railroad peculiarly serves this cast of mind, for its time is over: what more regretful phrase is there than “the end of the line”? Of all railroads, the Madeira-Mamoré is one of the world’s most myth encrusted—a bizarre enterprise, engendered not by capitalist calculation but by diplomatic maneuver and national pride. Hardman does not so much reconstruct that terrible episode as evoke it, to reveal its true horrors: the impressment, enslavement, and liquidation of a work force dragooned from every corner of the earth; the mindless efficiency and ruthlessness of bureaucratic and capitalist forces set in motion toward a clear but purposeless goal.

This is a brilliant exercise, beautifully written; a literary essay rather than a historical monograph. Constructed almost entirely from published accounts, it leaves memories still to be tapped, in such corners as the Farquahar papers at Yale and the Church papers at Brown.