Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Winchester illuminates the men who toiled fearlessly to discover, connect, and bond the citizenry and geography of the U.S.A. from its beginnings and ponders whether the historic work of uniting the States has succeeded, and to what degree.
I loved this author's The Professor and the Madman, and I became a true fan with the publication of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. I looked forward to seeing what he could do with a subject this massive.
Winchester chose as his framework the five classical elements: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. Like all the earliest explorers, Lewis and Clark had to confront endless, ancient forests. Wood was a dominant feature of every expedition across the country. Once the basic geography was established, it was time to learn what riches were concealed in the earth, and with that knowledge, the expansion exploded. With the building of canals and the use of natural waterways to the invention and use of engines that relied on heat-- steam, gasoline, aviation fuel-- the time it took to cross the country became shorter and shorter. Finally, metal was the key to the final stage of uniting this country: copper telegraph cables, steel telephone wires, iron radio and television masts, all the way to the underpinnings of the Internet. With that swift communications capability, this large land mass was truly united. The author's chosen framework does its job well.
This book is not comprehensive, but is a fascinating overview, shining Winchester's spotlight on many little known people responsible for making the United States what it is today. It also is not a hymn to American superiority; when we chose the wrong road, Winchester says so. As the author added brush strokes to his canvas, he made me remember childhood cross-country trips and put the many things I'd seen in a much wider (and eye-opening) perspective.
As much as there is to like in this book-- and there is a lot-- I felt that it wasn't quite up to the standards of his other books (like Professor and Krakatoa). I believe there is one reason for this: the aforementioned books have a much narrower focus that can delve deeply into the facts in such a way that lend themselves to a smoothly flowing and fascinating narrative. The focus of this book is so big that it's a bit unwieldy, and from time to time I found my attention straying. Be that as it may, Winchester reminded me of the many wonderful things that have occurred to transform this country. He's also sparked my interest to research several subjects more deeply, and isn't that one of the best things a book can do-- entice us to learn more?
All that notwithstanding, there were parts better befitting the themes, and parts that were not so successful, or more lacking, in my opinion. We have a cauldron of individuals ‘melting in the pot’ including all the big adventurers, pioneers and inventors: from Lewis and Clark to Morse, Tesla and Edison, and many not so well known yet definitely memorable characters like Clarence King, Thomas Harris MacDonald and Theodore Judah, and the anecdotes about them are always engaging. Curiously, the chapter I found least coherent is the chapter on Winchester’s specialty- geology. Maybe it is true that it’s most difficult to write on what you know best. My favourite chapter, on the other hand, was when the American story was ‘fanned by fire’. Winchester discusses the development of the railway and highway systems and eventually finishes with the planes there. It’s not only interesting overall with at least four really memorable moments with the Donner Pass crossing, Judge farming family reflections, encounter with a Yukon Mountie and the grounding of the planes following 9/11, but it’s also quite beautifully written and in a form that I like reading Winchester most, a travelogue. It made me nostalgic for a good American road trip. Next summer. Can’t wait.
The first section of the book deals with the Lewis & Clark expedition. I have a fairly extensive L&C library including 3 versions of the journals. I am far from claiming to be an expert but in over 40+ years I have probably read more then the average bear about the expedition and Jefferson. My main problem is that on pg. 20 Winchester states that Lewis "found builders for an iron-framed fifty-five foot wooden keelboat in Pittsburgh." So far as I know the boat Lewis had build was entirely wooden. I have never read of any iron works in Pittsburgh in 1803 that could have produced the frame. Lewis did pack a collapsible iron boat frame for a cockle type boat to be covered with leather hides when the expedition reached shallow water on the Missouri River. The frame was made at the Haper's Ferry Armory. It was assembled on the Missouri, above the Great Falls and covered with Buffalo hides. It was quickly abandoned as Lewis had neglected to bring anything to seal the seams with and the craft leaked severely. I would guess that Lewis thought he would be able to find pine tree pitch to do the job when he needed it, but found no pine trees on the Great Plains and they used buffalo fat and ashes as a paste. It didn't hold. I think Winchester confused this iron frame with keelboat made in Pittsburgh. The replica keelboats made for the 200th anniversary of the expedition were constructed of wood also.
There were other somewhat dubious interpretations of history where Winchester used a little poetic licence with history.
For example, on page 18:
Winchester describes Jefferson (in 1801) "his face purple with apoplectic annoyance" upon reading about Alexander McKenzie's 1793 trip across Canada to the Pacific. Jefferson was disappointed that none of his attempts, up to that point, to encourage an expedition across North America had succeeded. But no where have I ever found a reference to Jefferson being apoplectic. I think the interpretation here is a little poetic licence, not history.
On page 49 he sites Sacagawea as being a pregnant 15 yearold. So far as I know there is no evidence at all establishing Sacagawea's age. She was young but 15 is really pushing it.
On page 106 Winchester describes trapper(Old) Bill Williams as being the 'leader' of J. C. Fremont's 4th and ill fated expedition and blames him for the loss of life (11 of 30 expedition members). Again 40+ years of reading early western exploration history somewhat disagrees with Winchester's interpretation. Williams was a hired guide, Fremont was the leader. Most historians seem to believe that Fremont ignored Williams' advice and led the expedition into trouble. I don't think Winchester really delved into Fremont's background very deeply.
Several other references like these raised questions as to the accuracy of Winchester's history in the rest of the book where my specific knowledge of the subjects is not nearly as broad and I can't judge. I get the feeling that it was a rush job to get a new book out and some of the historical research was given the once over lightly. If Winchester had a research assistant for this book he didn't do a very good job of verifying the data. It doesn't reflect well on Winchester's prior work.
Has anyone else read this book and questioned any of its facts.
I had a couple of quibbles - there is an almost total lack of international context; each innovation could be seen as totally American, where the canals and the railways and so on were all adopted and adapted from overseas. Recognising this context wouldn't diminish the feats achieved in the US, and it might have done just a little bit to better inform the average american reader.
Second quibble, it is hard to imagine a book about uniting the states that doesn't address the attempt to disunite them that took place in the civil war.
Winchester has annoyed me a little in the past with book titles and promos that promise more than they deliver. But in this case, the content is informative and entertainingly enough written to win me over. He still needs an editor with a firm hand - although his many asides and anecdotes are fun, there needs to be more relevance, and a good firm red pen would help.
Read August 2014
Winchester throws in a lot of anecdotes -- personal and trivial. Its a fun read -- if you can get past jumping back and forth along the time line as he tracks each topic apart from the others. We hear about the explorers, then the road builders, then water transport, then the communication networks, etc. But, in keeping with some of Winchesters other interests, we hear about more localized, yet important events. Towns that flourished at particular crossroads, only to fade to obscurity as technology robs them of their advantage. Chicago was a little better positioned among the rail crossroads and enjoyed spectacular growth while the other contender at the time, Cincinnati, never grew to be quite the epic city.
This is a unique perspective on the inner workings of manifest destiny. We all know what happened, what is sometimes lost is how it happened. Today, we cannot fathom a time when it took weeks to get a message from New York to San Francisco. It didn't become instant overnight -- there were a lot of baby steps among the seminal events.
Think about it. As a country we (or our ancestors) were a hodge-podge of ethnic backgrounds, religions, and languages. America has had to make a union for itself and Winchester details beautifully some of the deliberate acts of Americans that have brought us together as one united country, beyond the national concept of ideals on which our country was founded and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. He explains that this book is what might be called the "physiology and the physics of the country, the strands of connective tissue that have allowed it to achieve all it has, and yet to keep itself together while doing so."
For The Men Who United the States Winchester structured his book around the five so-called classical elements, Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal, rather than following a more traditional organizational format to explain how America became a united country.
Wood was a dominant feature of every early voyage across our country, so it is a fitting element to represent the first explorers and settlers. This section, naturally, follows the exploration of Lewis and Clark and to a lesser extent the settlers crossing the country.
Earth includes the land itself and all of the undiscovered wealth and awe found in America. I especially loved this chapter because it focuses on America's geology and the exploration of many of our unique national treasures. Winchester includes the ravels and exploration of Robert Owen, William Maclure, John Wesley Powell, Ferdinand Hayden (Yellowstone, including painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson)
Water is, naturally, representative of the first highways for early travelers and later for trade, and to generate power. Our rivers are unique in America and Winchester explains why and how the building of canals helped us for commerce and transportation. Even more uniting was the improvements made to local roads. (Interesting previously unknown facts: John McAdam created the macadamized road and then Edgar Hooley decided to spray tar on it creating tarmacadam, or tarmac, in America called blacktop )
Fire is indicative of engines and the ability they afforded us to travel across our country. Robert Fulton's steam engine created even swifter travel and people could begin to travel far distances in less time. "By 1870, the railroad industry had become the country’s second biggest employer, after agriculture. Soon the dominant railroad companies became the country’s biggest corporations..." A transcontinental railroad line changed the country and getting through the Sierras was an incredible feat. (After living in Reno, NV, for 5 years at 5500 feet, I loved Winchester's Donner Pass story.) Naturally the interstate highway system and cars made us an even more mobile society, but also helped unite us as a country.
Metal encompasses the wire cable used for the telegraph, telephone, electricity, but also includes radio, television and the internet. Once we started spreading phone lines and electric lines across the country, it totally changed the way we live. “Making a Neighborhood of a Nation,” said Southwestern Bell’s advertisements. Radio and TV became our entertainment - and also a huge money-making opportunity for businesses. Add to that the internet, which was conceived in America. (Joseph Licklider, Vint Cerf, and Robert Kahn, can fairly be said to have conceived and invented the basic structure of the modern Internet.)
PART I: WHEN AMERICA’S STORY WAS DOMINATED BY WOOD, 1793–1805
A View across the Ridge; Drawing a Line in the Sand; Peering through the Trees; The Frontier and the Thesis; The Wood Was Become Grass; Encounters with the Sioux; First Lady of the Plains; High Plains Rafters; Passing the Gateway; Shoreline Passage
PART II: WHEN AMERICA’S STORY WENT BENEATH THE EARTH, 1809–1901
The Lasting Benefit of Harmony; The Science That Changed America; Drawing the Colors of Rocks; The Wellspring of Knowledge; The Tapestry of Underneath; Setting the Lures; Off to See the Elephant; The West, Revealed; The Singular First Adventure of Kapurats; The Men Who Gave Us Yellowstone; Diamonds, Sex, and Race
PART III: WHEN THE AMERICAN STORY TRAVELED BY WATER, 1803–1900
Journeys to the Fall Line; The Streams beyond the Hills; The Pivot and the Feather; The First Big Dig; The Wedded Waters of New York; The Linkmen Cometh; That Ol’ Man River
PART IV: WHEN THE AMERICAN STORY WAS FANNED BY FIRE, 1811–1956
May the Roads Rise Up; Rain, Steam, and Speed; The Annihilation of the In-Between; The Immortal Legacy of Crazy Judah; Colonel Eisenhower’s Epiphanic Expedition; The Colossus of Roads; And Then We Looked Up; The Twelve-Week Crossing
PART V: WHEN THE AMERICAN STORY WAS TOLD THROUGH METAL, 1835–TOMORROW
To Go, but Not to Move; The Man Who Tamed the Lightning; The Signal Power of Human Speech; With Power for One and All; Lighting the Corn, Powering the Prairie; The Talk of the Nation; Making Money from Air; Television: The Irresistible Force; The All of Some Knowledge EPILOGUE
What makes this history of the making of America special is that Winchester also traveled to many of the historical sites he mentions and includes anecdotes about his experiences. And I get it. I understand what Winchester, a new American citizen, is saying. I have lived many different places in this country and, while there are regional quirks, we really are one people thanks to many of the reason's Winchester highlights in his book.
The Men Who United the States includes many photographs, maps, illustrations, footnotes, a bibliography, and index - all things that please me greatly. I have greatly enjoyed every book I have read by Simon Winchester and The Men Who United the States is no exception. While is is not an exhaustive history textbook of every invention, item, or person that has contributed to making us a united people, it is an exceptionally well written account that points to some of the people, inventions, and actions that helped make us one country.
Very Highly Recommended - I will be getting a hardcover copy of this book, especially since I had an uncorrected advanced reading copy.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins via Edelweiss for review purposes.
However, I can say that, after reading this work, I am not at all surprised that Winchester’s works so unfailingly appear on best-seller lists. His writing is simply superb: cinematic, engrossing, penetrating, and thought-provoking on nearly every page. I would put Winchester on the same level as other favorite authors like Hampton Sides and Lynne Olson, perhaps bested only by the slightest of margins by David McCullough.
The premise of the book is to explore, as the introduction phrases it, the “pure physics of union.” He demonstrates that, across our national history, in ways big and small, the accent of our national life has been on becoming and remaining the United States of America. The cultural metanarrative is one of unification (in its darker passages, perhaps trending toward amalgamation or domination).
Given the vastness of American history and diversity, Winchester admits that telling the story of America’s “uniting” rightly seems an impossible task. He therefore elects to use the Eastern concept of the five classical elements—wood, earth, water, fire, and metal—as thematizing threads, showing how each of the elements played a role not only in the initial exploration of the nation but in the national life up to the present day. The story is not so much sequenced as it is layered.
Winchester also makes it a point to tell the forgotten stories of our national growth. Of course, he tells the stories of the major figures like Lewis and Clark who led the first exploratory expedition of the Louisiana Purchase and President Dwight D. Eisenhower who initiated the creation of the interstate highway system, but he also includes lesser-known figures like William Maclure, who drew the world’s first geological map. This isn’t about detracting from the better-known characters’ honor but about contextualizing their story and adding to the pantheon of “real American heroes.”
Though the book is largely focused on early American history (the reason why I chose to read it), the fact that he chooses to include elements of the contemporary era that carry forward these themes adds a delightful richness to the metanarrative, showing the “rootedness” of contemporary life in a distinctively American Zeitgeist.
And perhaps that is the major strength of this book. Winchester is able, like de Tocqueville in an earlier age, with the unnerving accuracy of the “outsider’s eye,” to summarize and describe the essence of the American spirit. It is, as he so ably demonstrates, a spirit of courageous adventure, high ideals, and a constant search for a sense of belonging that, though elusive, has proven to be the essence of our nation’s greatness.