Most previous interpretations of the iron industry cast it as relatively uniform and primitive, important mainly as a precursor to steel. Knowles found instead that ironworks were tremendously complex and varied, depending on local geology and geography. Nor was the industry simply a steppingstone to steel. The manufacture of iron was “its own event,” vital to railroads, textile factories and other enterprises; hence, a driving force in the nation’s industrial revolution.
Knowles also brings this potentially dry subject alive with vivid evocations of place (Pittsburgh, according to a journalist she quotes, looked like “hell with the lid taken off”) and the words and stories of individuals who made and sold iron. The industry required extremely skilled laborers who “worked from sight and feel” at harsh jobs like puddling, which meant stirring “a mass of white-hot iron at close range to rid it of impurities.” At the other end were entrepreneurs who took remarkable risks. Many failed, including magnates who had succeeded in other industries.
To Knowles, this history is instructive, even though the story she tells ended a century and a half ago. “There are analogues to today, entrepreneurs overreaching their expertise and going into businesses they don’t understand.” As always, she also stresses the specificity of place. “In trying to export American capitalism, we fail to appreciate local circumstances that help businesses to succeed or fail. We shouldn’t assume we have a good model that can simply be exported.”
Though Knowles’ research has centered on gritty industry, genocide and the carnage at Gettysburg, she retreats at day’s end through rolling farmland to her home eight miles from Middlebury. En route, she instinctively reads the landscape, noting: “The forest cover would have been much less a hundred years ago, it was all cleared then. You can see that in how scrubby the trees are, they’re second and third growth.”
Her old farmhouse has wide pine floorboards and a barn and apple trees in the yard. She does most of her writing in a room with a view of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. This faded rural setting is a striking contrast to the global and digital universe that Knowles inhabits in her research. But to her there’s no disconnect. One constant in her life is the keen sense of place she’s had since childhood. “Where we are on the map matters,” she says. “So does mental space. We all need that, and I find it here.”