BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Men Who United the States’

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THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES: AMERICA’S EXPLORERS, ECCENTRICS, AND MAVERICKS, AND THE CREATION OF ONE NATION, INDIVISIBLE
By Simon Winchester
Harper, $29.99, 499 pages

Simon Winchester is one of those fortunates who had a lot of exciting fun in his youth as one of that now-vanished breed of star reporters for London newspapers who roamed through foreign wars and high global politics in the era before the Internet made journalism both instant and trivial.

Since then, he has had an even more successful career as a writer of the history of great environmental episodes — the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the storms of the Atlantic Ocean. He has carried off this transformation with an authority rooted in his early studies for a degree in geology from Oxford. What this brings to his writing style is a fortuitous juxtaposition of the rigors of scientific inquiry with the reporter’s keen eye for a good story.

The happy result is this elegantly written and captivating meditation on the unique physiology of that cultural-political phenomenon known as the United States of America. While it is popular these days to sneer at the idea of American exceptionalism, there is no doubt we are a unique societal agglomeration and have been so since our founding.

Mr. Winchester reminds us of this truth at the start by quoting Walt Whitman’s preface to his 1888 edition of “Leaves of Grass”: “Think of the United States today — the facts of these thirty-eight or forty empires solder’d in one — sixty or seventy millions of equals, with their lives, their passions, their future — these incalculable, modern, American, seething multitudes around us, of which we are inseparable parts!”

That our nation is what Mr. Winchester calls “the great magical confusion” is heightened by the equally mysterious fact of our common shared identity. As the British-born Mr. Winchester knows full well, you or I could move permanently to some other land — Britain, France or Timbuktu — but we would forever be known as “the American” next door. The day Mr. Winchester became a naturalized American citizen (July 4, 2011), he also became an American. He felt it, it was acknowledged by others, and it was so.

This book then is a remarkable examination of the physiology of how we became the people we are. Mr. Winchester describes the task as “a meditation on the nature of this American unity, a hymn to the creation of oneness, a parsing of the rich complexities that lie behind the country’s so-simple-sounding motto: E pluribus unum.”

Using his science background, Mr. Winchester organizes his study of the anatomy of American unity by breaking it down into five natural elements — wood, geology (earth), water, fire and metal — that form our connective tissue. The impact of each of these five factors helps explain how it was possible for the collection of characters he profiles to first capture this vast continent, then to weld it into a truly political and economic network, and, in the process, meld successive waves of incredibly diverse peoples into a shared American identity.

Many of the names Mr. Winchester profiles are familiar ones: Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, to name three. Even in those oft-told tales, he brings a backstory that is often more informative than the legend. However, where he really engages the reader is with his tales of, as the title promises, “the eccentrics and mavericks” who set so much of this transformation in motion.

Appropriately, Mr. Winchester begins his tale with that ultimate eccentric, Thomas Jefferson, that bewildering contradiction of visionary of liberty, callous slave breeder and cosmopolitan recluse who wrenched an infant collection of states from their moorings on the Atlantic Coast and flung the national gaze all the way to the Pacific Coast and from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. At least part of Jefferson’s expansionist schemes — from the Lewis and Clark exploration of western territories beyond our legal boundaries to the Louisiana Purchase, which exploded those boundaries — were driven by his fascination with botany.

Other fascinating tales abound. Robert Owen, the Scottish communal-living advocate and the New Harmony colony he founded in Indiana became the center of learning for that fledgling but all-important new physical science — geology. The new geologists sparked a growing fascination about and appetite for the riches beneath the American soil — its sources of fuel, minerals and fertilizers — that sent explorers and then exploiters ranging over this still largely uncharted continent.

In addition to the lesser-known innovators, Mr. Winchester provides us with the contributions to the unification of America that often well-known figures have made but which are not usually cited in their standard biographies. Take the two great transportation innovators George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

From his early days as a Virginia militia officer in the French and Indian War, Washington had become obsessed with the promise of lands on the western frontier of the time — the Ohio Valley. That turned him into first a road builder and then a lifelong promoter of canals to link the western reaches with the coastal markets. Eisenhower, as a young Army officer in 1919, was part of a U.S. Army experiment to drive assorted military vehicles from the East Coast to California. The trip was a rolling catastrophe, but its memory convinced Eisenhower as president to foster the interstate highway system that binds us as an arterial network of both transportation and culture.

My favorite yarn is about the certifiable loony who flew the first plane across the United States. The year was 1911, just eight years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Over 84 days, the pilot literally crashed his way from town to town until he reached Pasadena, Calif., where the telephone was first used to convey news of his arrival — thus the first glimmerings of commercial aviation and the Internet began.

These and other fascinating stories and insights await the reader.

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