Solnit has much to say about the power of money. Interspersed among the biographical sections in River of Shadows is an argument about how capital transformed not only the American West (a transformation in which the Gold Rush, the slaughter and expulsion of Native Americans, and the transcontinental railroad figure prominently, and Solnit has something to say about each), but the entire fabric of the modern world, from a place where place mattered to an environment without space or time, in short, a river of shadows. The scope of this transformation defies qualitative assessment, and Solnit is appropriately cautious about judging it. There is, nonetheless, a muted anger in her book, at the destruction wrought on humans and their landscape by mining, by settlement, by tourism and industry. You can hear it in her conclusion, when she observes that "The world seems run from Silicon Valley now, run by engineers . . . whose constant question is never why? but how?" Like Muybridge himself, Solnit seems to be yearning for an alternative, a technology subordinate to purpose and desire. And it is the measure of her graceful, thoughtful book that she finds a place where machines and desires are reconciled: in the analogy she draws between the Ghost Dance (which the Modoc, among other tribes, thought would bring back their dead ancestors) and the moving picture: "Cinema would itself be a kind of Ghost Dance. It was and is a breach in the wall between the past and the present, one that lets the dead return, albeit as images of flickering light, rather than phantoms in the dark or armies marching across the land." It's a moment when the river of invention seems to pause, and to let something else through, something which is at once older and more hopeful than progress.
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit; Viking. Hardcover, 297 pages, $26.