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The Hoosac railroad tunnel in the mountains of northwestern Massachusetts was a nineteenth-century engineering and construction marvel, on par with the Brooklyn Bridge, Transcontinental Railroad, and Erie Canal. The longest tunnel in the Western Hemisphere at the time (4.75 miles), it took nearly twenty-five years (1851-1875), almost two hundred casualties, and tens of millions of dollars to build. Yet it failed to deliver on its grandiose promise of economic renewal for the commonwealth, and thus is little known today. Andrew R. Black's Buried Dreams refreshes public memory of the project, explaining how a plan of such magnitude and cost came to be in the first place, what forces sustained its completion, and the factors that inhibited its success. Black digs into the special case of Massachusetts, a state disadvantaged by nature and forced repeatedly to reinvent itself to succeed economically. The Hoosac Tunnel was just one of the state's efforts in this cycle of decline and rejuvenation, though certainly the strangest. Black also explores the intense rivalry among Eastern Seaboard states for the spoils of western expansion in the post-Erie Canal period. His study interweaves the lure of the West, the competition between Massachusetts and archrival New York, the railroad boom and collapse, and the shifting ground of state and national politics. The psychic makeup of Americans before and after the Civil War heavily influenced public perceptions of the tunnel; by the time it was finished, Black contends, the indomitable triumphalism that had given birth to the Hoosac had faded to skepticism and cynicism. Anticipated economic benefits never arrived, and Massachusetts eventually sold the tunnel for only a fraction of its cost to a private railroad company. Buried Dreams tells a story of America's reckoning with the perils of impractical idealism, the limits of technology to bend nature to its will, and grand endeavors untempered by humility.
John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870) achieved a multidimensional career as a successful novelist, historian, and politician. He published widely and represented his district in the Maryland legislature before being elected to Congress several times and serving as secretary of the navy during the Fillmore administration. He devoted much of his life to the American Whig party and campaigned zealously for Henry Clay during his multiple runs for president. His friends in literary circles included Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. According to biographer Andrew Black, scholars from various fields have never completely captured this broadly talented antebellum figure, with literary critics ignoring Kennedy's political work, historians overlooking his literary achievements, and neither exploring their close interrelationship. In fact, Black argues, literature and politics were inseparable for Kennedy, as his literary productions were infused with the principles and beliefs that coalesced into the Whig party in the 1830s and led to its victory over Jacksonian Democrats the following decade. Black's comprehensive biography amends this fractured scholarship, employing Kennedy's published work and other writing to investigate the culture of the Whig party itself. Using Kennedy's best-known novel, the enigmatic Swallow Barn, or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832), Black illustrates how the author grappled unsuccessfully with race and slavery. The novel's unstable narrative and dissonant content reflect the fatal indecisiveness both of its author and his party in dealing with these volatile issues. Black further argues that it was precisely this failure that caused the political collapse of the Whigs and paved the way for the Civil War.