According to Jack Beatty’s new anthology Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, American history is, in many ways, the history of the corporation. Beatty shows, for example, how America’s industrial development during the nineteenth century was closely connected to the rise of the corporation. In order to grow economically, the U.S. had to build massive communication and transportation networks. The perfect organization for such far-flung enterprises as railroads and telegraphs was the corporation, which could finance its operations through stock offerings, hire professional managers, and limit liability in ways government-sponsored projects and smaller, private businesses could not. So powerful was the corporate model that by the end of the nineteenth century, big business had penetrated nearly every aspect of American society.

Colossus demonstrates this by collecting a variety of writings about the corporate underpinnings of America. Selections from recent histories of American business by the likes of Alfred Chandler and Peter Drucker sit alongside passages from Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Steinbeck, and Joseph Heller. They are arranged chronologically and cover such issues as the role of the early nineteenth-century court in establishing the rights and responsibilities of corporations, the rise of the department store, Taylorism, Fordism, the invention of modern management, and the recent entry of women and minorities into the upper echelons of management. Highlights include Henry Demarest Lloyd’s 1881 Atlantic Monthly article attacking Standard Oil and Susan Faludi’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the late-1980s LBO of Safeway.

Colossus seeks to correct what Beatty sees as a fundamental misconception about American history. The notion that change is rooted in politics and government, Beatty argues, bears no real relation to the America of today. In recent decades, he contends, business has had far more influence than government has: “Politics is comparatively a sideshow, a diversion from the real precincts of power,” he writes. Beatty stresses further that we cannot make sense of either America’s present or its future without understanding the foundational role the corporation has played in American history: Colossus, he writes, “seeks to give perspective to the debate over the corporation’s place in the good society.”

Beatty wants finally to convey two simple truths. The first is that corporations are neither un-American nor inherently evil. Though they are currently the targets of a great deal of bad press, they are and have always been the backbone of American culture. The second truth is that the U.S. will not be a world leader in the twenty-first century unless its policies and practices show a better understanding of the complex, shifting, always essential role the corporation has played in U.S. history.

Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, and Colossus bears the imprint of the work he has done there. For several years, Beatty has been writing editorials on such topical issues as trade policy, the changing meaning of work, anti-capitalist sentiment, and America’s seemingly chronic inability to make sense of its own political situations.

One recurring theme in Beatty’s columns is that lack of historical awareness hobbles much contemporary debate, and a recurring tactic of the columns is to put current events into perspective by comparing them with similar episodes from the past. Beatty’s writing is animated by the earnest belief that understanding the past will enable more intelligent decision-making for the future. Colossus seeks to do on a colossal scale (the book runs to over 500 pages) what Beatty has long been doing in miniature for The Atlantic. However, there are two critical problems with the organization of Colossus that prevent it from achieving its ends.

The first of these problems has to do with Beatty’s over-reliance on secondary – and sometimes tertiary – sources. In the chapter on Calvinism, for example, we read about the Puritan jeremiad, the fire and brimstone sermon that did so much to create the ascetic, hard-working American mindset, but we do not read anything by Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, or any of the other great and terrible Puritan preachers. Likewise, we read about Max Weber and Perry Miller, the original and still definitive thinkers on how the protestant ethic created the spirit of capitalism, but we do not get to see any of their actual prose. Instead, we read an expurgation of a paraphrase, a spliced and streamlined selection from Stephen Innes’ Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England (1995), that summarizes Weber and Miller ’s ideas about the jeremiad. Such moves are confusing, to say the least. In their layered indirection, and in their disregard for the words of both historical figures and major theorists, they deaden the history they want to bring to life.

The second problem with Colossus is that parts of histories often stand in for the whole. Consider Beatty’s chapter on “PR,” which consists of a lengthy account of AT&T’s masterful marketing techniques. The account comes from Roland Marchand’s Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business (Berkeley, 1998), and it raises more questions than it answers. Is AT&T really the exemplary instance of twentieth-century corporate public relations?

Marchand doesn’t think so. His book discusses how GM, GE, U.S. Steel, Ford, Heinz, and a host of other corporations learned to manipulate public perception during the last century. But Beatty does not acknowledge this dimension of Marchand’s study, nor does he balance the AT&T selection with additional examples or alternative accounts. By asking an excerpt from a single book to stand in for both the larger history that book details and for the history of public relations per se, Beatty does a disservice both to Marchand’s study and to his own project.

Composed of a readymade narrative culled from a book Beatty himself reviewed for The Atlantic, the PR chapter feels as if it owes more to circumstance than to careful research. The same sort of thing happens in the chapter on slavery, which consists of a quick summary of a single scholarly work, Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill, 1999). The summary paraphrases Beatty’s Atlantic Monthly review of Nelson’s book.

Together, these examples point to the conceptual flaw at the heart of Beatty’s book. Colossus wants to change our idea of history. But Colossus is an anthology, not a work of history. A collection that wants to be a chronicle, Beatty’s book turns on a basic confusion about the relation of the one to the other. Anthologies don’t establish histories; they supplement histories that have already been established. When Beatty asks a series of sequentially arranged excerpts, paraphrases, and paraphrases of paraphrases to stand in for the massive – indeed colossal – amount of research and synthesis a truly viable history of the corporation would entail, he shortchanges both the history he wants to write and the already written histories whose abridgements form the bulk of the book. The chronology feels forced, more opportunistic than thorough, more the work of Beatty’s library than of library work. And the selections themselves suffer from the format, which frequently fails to convey the genuine force of the books Beatty includes. Beatty is right: a book about “how the corporation changed America” would add a great deal to our understanding of the “corporation’s place in the good society.” But Colossus is not that book.