Book Review: The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910

Matthews, Michael. The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 340 pp. Paperback. $40 

Michael Matthews examines the cultural representations of railroads in the Mexican press, articulating their significance to popular society and state formation during the Porfiriato. The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910 delves into the writings and imagery of newspapers and magazines loyal and opposed to the regime of Porfirio Díaz. Matthews argues that rival political factions often shared much common ground discursively when characterizing railroads and locomotive travel as harbingers of modernity. Few disagreed that the iron horse embodied notions of “order and progress” poised to deliver Mexico to the club of “modern” nations. Notable differences arose, however, in the ways print outlets portrayed the railroad as an aspect of government policy during this period. For example, Díaz’s supporters used public commemorations when opening new railway stations to stage the national government’s political power and technical prowess. In contrast, opponents cited locomotive accidents and labor abuses committed by foreign-owned railroad companies as manifestations of government ineptitude and preferential treatment given to Americans and Europeans. Although rarely rejecting the technology in toto as bad for the nation, critics instead used the railroad as a foil to appraise the regime without running afoul of state censors.

The book’s chief contribution to the scholarship on Mexican railroad history is its discussion of the various print outlets serving elite, middle-class, and working-class audiences. Matthews provides excellent analytical treatments of a wide range of publications, exploring how the notion of railroads as conveyors of “progress” was deeply embedded not only in conteporary news reports, but also popular literature and poetry. He includes superb translations of texts from these sources, capturing a sense of how discussions of industrial technologies entered the public imagination. Moreover, he notes that when railroads “failed”—addressing cases of locomotive derailments or poor safety precautions that resulted in the loss of life—society reacted strongly, casting the technology as a Yankee threat if not kept under careful control. Although the readership of these publications remained relatively small, Matthews argues that the prevalence of illustrations in many of the working-class publications indicates that these ideas in print were disseminated much more widely.

An area of particular strength for The Civilizing Machine is Matthews’s analysis of the sociocultural significance of high-profile legal cases covered in the elite and popular press. In one example, he studies a lawsuit filed by the representatives of a prominent German banking firm doing business in Mexico; the individuals demanded financial recompense for physical and psychological trauma endured during a railway accident. Matthews takes the reader through the details of the case as it worked its way through the Mexican courts, tying it to larger discussions occurring in Mexican society related to questions of national sovereignty and the influence of foreign actors in the economy and government.

For Borderlands historians, The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910 provides useful analysis of media narratives that highlight transnational socioeconomic and political themes. U.S. companies and personnel figured prominently—often as villains—in the Mexican press, highlighting the complex and oftentimes contentious relationship that has long existed between the two countries. On the one hand, Díaz and his supporters looked to foreign investment to subsidize industrialization as a panacea for socioeconomic problems. On the other hand, U.S. railroad workers regularly became the target of local police and judiciaries alongside a domestic press sensitive to company policies that favored English over Spanish and appeared to disregard public safety in favor of faster transit times. In many of these cases, perception became reality within the pages of the newspapers and magazines writing about railroads.

In closing, Matthews adds a nuanced and colorful work to the scholarly literature of railroads in Mexico. It will certainly prove useful to specialists in the field looking to augment their readings of social and economic studies of locomotive travel and transport, providing a well-structured examination of related print narratives from the period. The Civilizing Machine may also be appropriate for use in upper-division courses on Mexican cultural history, particularly in its treatment of travel literature and visual representations of railroads as aspects of the public imagination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Categories: Book and Journal Reviews | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Book Review: The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876-1910

  1. Brandon Morgan

    Reblogged this on The Mexican Revolution: Gender, Culture, and Myth and commented:
    I wanted to add a link to this review of a new book on the history of Mexico’s railroads during the Porfiriato. It adds to our understanding of reach of the modernizing and civilizing impulse during the period of Porfirio Diaz’s rule in Mexico. Also, railroads played a major role in the strategies of Mexican Revolutionaries, particularly in the northern theater.

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