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The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible by Simon Winchester

June 13, 2014

men_who_united

This is essentially the story of how, in addition to a belief in common ideals, America was united by infrastructure. Winchester makes the case that without this “connective tissue”—the various transportation and communication systems—the U.S.’s odds of remaining unified would have been slim. The roads and railroads and canals; telegraph lines and telephone lines and Internet lines allowed people in different cities to exchange information and ideas, to trade goods, to travel and relocate, to mix with each other in mind and body—to unite in ways that a true country requires. Both psychologically and in practical ways, the country was synced by its unification (time of day, for example, varied from town to town until the railway system came along, requiring clocks to be synchronized). We often forget and take for granted today what audacious ambition it took to bring many of these systems into existence. And behind these ambitions were some brilliant, courageous and sometimes crazy men.*

Winchester organizes his topics around the classical elements—wood, earth, air, fire and water. I was skeptical when he introduced this notion, but then midway through the book thought it was actually working pretty well. But by the end, I’d gone back to thinking it a peculiar taxonomy that serves no purpose chronology would not. The bigger flaw, however, is that the book is somewhat uneven in the depth to which subjects are treated as well as their intrigue. Here, Winchester is at the mercy of history, perhaps, but it felt like he was less interested in some of the topics.

I particularly enjoyed the sections about the railroad and canals. The Lewis and Clark expedition could not be anything but epic, though I knew quite a bit about it thanks to Stephen Ambrose’s wonderful book, Undaunted Courage. Likewise, I was familiar with the Edison vs. Westinghouse battle over AC/DC current thanks to Michael Daly’s Topsy. Both stories are great. And collectively, these four make a large and very entertaining chunk of this book, on par with some of Bill Bryson’s best historical writing.

Winchester mixes the history of the country with some personal travelogue stuff as he recounts his trips to visit these famous places and describes how they are today—many of them essentially forgotten. I found these passages moving and felt an unexpected pang of nostalgia for an America that, in all likelihood, was not nearly as idyllic as my imagining of it. Still, it is a nice juxtaposition and a reminder of how fluid history is, each wave rolling over and often erasing the contours left by the previous wave. We see this time and again.

East meets West as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railways are united by Leland Stanford’s ceremonial driving of the “golden spike.”

My favorite moments in the book are the linking moments: when the Erie Canal opened and sealed the fate of New York City as an international economic center, when the transcontinental railroad was joined outside of Ogden, Utah on May 10, 1869 and the sledgehammer rigged to fire off a telegraph back east as the “golden spike” was driven in. But in every case, despite the excitement and fanfare, each system was eventually replaced by another, better system. An unimaginable amount of sweat, riches and lives poured into each of these projects that were, in the end, just a step toward something greater. In addition to Winchester’s theme of the States being unified by these systems, it is the fits and starts and stacking of historical brick upon historical brick that I love about this story—about history in general. Nothing comes from nothing. We stand on the shoulders of everyone who has come before. It is something we would all be better for remembering.

Erie Canal

At the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton poured Lake Erie water into New York Bay. Although Winchester cannot fathom the logic of it, he tells how they also poured various buckets of water collected from around the world into the canal.

 

*Winchester admits that women are, by and large, conspicuously absent from the stories he tells. However, he maintains that most of the explorers, barons, politicians, inventors, scientists and engineers behind America’s infrastructure were, in fact, men. He also acknowledges but does not dwell on the poor treatment of Native Americans, African Americans and Chinese Americans, many of whom served as cheap--or free--labor and died in the service of some of these grand projects, opening him up to an additional trifecta of accusations. Perhaps Winchester felt each of those topics is at least a book, if not an entire field of study, in itself.
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