Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Men Who United the States

In the midst of reading this book by Simon Winchester. I’ve read two others by him: one about Krakatoa, the other about the San Francisco earthquake. Winchester is a geologist by education, and certainly a wide-ranging scholar. His books tend to be factually thick.

This book bears the hallmark of the next project from someone who has had success. He fabricates a structure, using the elements earth, wind, water, fire as residing concepts for the uniting of this country. It’s a bit laboured.

The book’s title of course is a ninny. That it is about MEN means that it’s that story again. It is about heroes, singular male figures who did stuff. Winchester inevitably offers Sacagawea as honourary heroine There’s really little trace of her in the annals. Carrying a papoose on such an expedition sounds almighty rough, but it is something native Americans did, and did and did. People made choices to move where opportunity seemed better. They went as families, or small communities, mostly. Glory hardly played into the decision. Out to find some land, out to make a buck, out to stretch the legs, whatever, but rarely heroism as the mainstay.

Winchester gives many fascinating stories about those who explored this continent. John Wesley Powell’s expedition battering its way thru the Grand Canyon is something I hadn’t read much about. For some reason, Winchester intrudes himself into the story. He does so in the National Geographic way: Here I stood where 150 years earlier a stout Maine division fought off a flanking rebel attack. We really don’t need Winchester’s account of driving to places where something happened years ago.

Winchester also marks the generating energy of mercantilism, as lives were lived to feed the immense commercial possibilities that the land was seen as. Canals, then trains, telegraph then telephone, all making space small and profit easier. The grand theme of liberty always sounds so misty when really, implacably, it refers to the ability to make money.

Early on, Winchester bloviates about one of Obama’s inaugural speeches. I don’t think Obama is a patch on Lincoln as far as speeches go, and the speeches are written for him anyway, so why even bring it up?

History concerns stories. We tend to make them testaments of eternal whatsis: George Washington chopped up the cherry pie. History only is interesting, however, and we use its mirror. When we can brush aside the crafty articulations and see how we ourselves make false claims and dazzle. The best part of the Lewis and Clark expedition was that they went and looked and wrote it down. Jefferson was just scheming for commerce, will nilly for the natives already on the land.

Winchester acknowledges the disaster of Progress’ march on the land and the little people in the way. I just react against mythologizing. These MEN who united the states bought ideas like class and progress, let the good and gentle be cast aside.

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