by Simon Winchester
Hardcover, 496 pages
For more than two centuries, E pluribus unum—"Out of many, one"—has been featured on America's official government seals and stamped on its currency. But how did America become "one nation, indivisible"? In this monumental history, Simon Winchester addresses these questions, bringing together the breathtaking achievements of those American pioneers who helped to forge and unify the new nation, and who toiled fearlessly to bond the citizens and geography of the United States from its very beginnings. This sweeping narrative details how these daring men, some famous, some forgotten, left their mark on America's natural landscapes, through courage, ingenuity, and hard work.
Winchester follows the footsteps of America's most crucial innovators, thinkers, and explorers, from Lewis and Clark and the leaders of the Great Surveys of the West to the builders of the first transcontinental railroad and the curmudgeonly civil engineer who oversaw the creation of more than three million miles of highway. Winchester travels across vast swaths of the American landscape, from Pittsburgh to Portland, Seattle to Anchorage, Truckee to Laramie, using the five classical elements—Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal—to chart the contributions these adventurous leaders made to connect the diverse communities within the United States and ensure the future of the American project begun in 1776.
My Thoughts:The Men Who United the States is an unforgettable journey of unprecedented scope across time and open spaces, providing a new lens through which to view American history, led by one of our most gifted writers.
Simon Winchester's latest book, The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible is definitely one of the best books (and not just nonfiction) I have read this year.
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
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.