The Men Who United The States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, And Mavericks, And The Creation Of One Nation, Indivisible, by Simon Winchester
This book is odd for a variety of reasons. For one, it is written by a naturalized Brit who clearly has some agendas he is pursuing here about the importance of giving credit to obscure people and in celebrating oddballs and mavericks as well as supporting a certain degree of “big” government expenditures in science and technology and even the five classical elements of Japanese thought. For another, this book is far more a book about creativity than I had thought at the beginning, and it is clear that Winchester has a great degree of interest in the subject, even if he explores it from a variety of different ways than that of the psychological approach that is particularly popular among those in creative studies. The author instead looks at creativity from the point of view of popular history and examines how it is that certain technologies took off and others failed to take off based on corporate and political power and the decisions of wider society and their elected officials and unelected bureaucrats. All of this makes for an odd but compelling book that has a lot to say about the ways that America has been united.
This book of almost 450 pages is divided into five parts. In the first part the author talks about the way that America’s story was dominated by wood from 1785-1805, examining the forests of Appalachia and the frontier thesis and America’s expansion west (1). After that the author discusses the importance of the earth, spending a great deal of time on geology, one of his favorite subjects, and its importance in American history (2). The third part of the book discusses the importance of water to American history (3), which is so transparently obvious I am surprised he does not spend more time here talking about canals and riverine transportation and communication. The fourth part of the book looks at the importance of fire in united the states, which allows the author to discuss roads and railroads and even early plane transportation (4). Finally, the author closes with a discussion of the unification of America through metal with regards to telegraphs and telephone wire, power lines, radio and television and the internet, and the way that these first united and then divided society by increasing the opportunity for people to do what they wanted.
Overall, this book has a few sources of unity, namely the scope of the work in terms of dealing with American history in a broad scope, as well as the five-element structure of the book itself. Fortunately, though, even if the author leaves out a lot of what one would think of as fairly obvious (the way that metal and fire united the United States during the Civil War, and the way that wood and water were important in bringing people to the United States by boat in the first place), the book is full of a wide variety of entertaining stories that include a view of the Youghiogheny River (a very important river in my own personal life), some thoughts on Asian carp and their spread through the Mississippi river valley, as well as some intriguing thoughts on matters of Asian immigration in the 1800’s and the tension between unity and diversity that one finds in technological advances. There is a lot to enjoy here, and the author clearly finds himself in his elements as someone who can weave a variety of compelling stories into a larger and interesting narrative that, as always, reveals his own biases and eccentricities as an author.