One Christmas, my uncle gave me what he referred to as “the ABCs of science fiction: Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke”, along with a long-term loan of the entire Foundation Trilogy. I’m not here to review Asimov’s work or bore you with my love of classic sci-fi. However, the Foundation Series fascinated me, even at a young age, mostly because of the fictional field of psychohistory: a combination of mathematics, sociology and statistics that could predict the future, at least in sufficiently large groups of people. The momentum of history, as described by Asimov, is vast, impersonal and nearly impossible to change without immense effort by millions. Yet in extraordinary cases, it is possible for the course of history to be altered by an individual, one who could not be predicted – although in Asimov’s case, doing so required a mutant with psychic powers.
On a smaller (and less fantastic) scale, Simon Winchester’s The Men Who United the States is the account of many such individuals, who by their collective actions altered the course and development of this country – some well-known, some mostly forgotten. Part history, part memoir, part love letter to America, it’s the story of the people who made this country what it is through their accomplishments. Winchester paints a portrait of an America dependent on the actions of hundreds (if not thousands) of motivated individuals – the absence of any one of whom would have sent the country along an entirely different path. He also gives credit to the visionaries and dreamers, those who first proposed the innovations and explorations, not just those who brought said visions and dreams to fruition.
The narrative is organized around the five classical Chinese elements: wood, earth, water, fire and metal, each element the focus of a particular phase in America’s exploration, development and exploitation. There’s a lot of temporal overlap and fuzzy boundaries between the sections, being thematic rather than sequential, and yet it’s really a brilliant way to chart the nation’s progress, preventing information overload and offering new insights into a familiar tale. Interwoven with the historical aspects are more personal ones, anecdotes from Winchester’s own decades of exploring the country and his perspectives on the people and places he describes, bringing all the mystery and wonder to life. At times, this delightfully roundabout narrative can be deceptive – many interludes appear to be completely off-topic at first glance, and yet there is always a larger point to be made as Winchester meanders through both time and space. In the process, he poses some very difficult questions that strike at the very heart of the American identity, about both our origins as a nation and our movement forward.
As I’m sure regular readers of this blog have noticed, I’m a sucker for books that tell me new and interesting stuff about the things we take for granted – for further proof of this, look at my post from September 18th. The general trajectory of this book in particular isn’t necessarily new, nor is some of the information offered – but the insights presented are, with many unfamiliar stories to go with familiar faces in a fascinating juxtaposition of the well-known and the obscure (whether deserved or not). It’s certainly not the history you learn in school – I doubt any of my elementary teachers would have included the bits about syphilis. In addition to being fascinating and informative, Winchester’s prose is also sharp, dry, evocative and funny – among many examples, he defines boustrophedon in the context of the serving patterns of flight attendants.
As a country, America is unique, in that most of the ties that bind us together as a nation had to be artificially created. Winchester looks behind the scenes of US expansion and development to the individuals who made such things possible. The narrative is both personal and national, all at the same time, bringing important figures to life and contextualizing them within the greater scope of history. Granted, a lot of the innovations and discoveries he describes would probably have been made at some point, by someone, but in no way does that diminish the achievements of those who were first.
Among this paean to American unity, Winchester never ignores the downsides of progress, the divisive nature of some of these inventions, or the uglier sides of history. From Asian carp as an invading species, infesting the Great Lakes via man-made canals to the rape of our natural resources to technology that divides more than it unites (looking at you, Internet!), he presents an even look at how far we have come and where we are going, both positive and negative.
This book is philosophy as much as it is history, giving an insightful new slant on the defining characteristics of America, something I would certainly be hard-pressed to do. But then again, to steal from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the reason I can’t see it “is the same reason people in Trafalgar Square can’t see England”. Winchester became a naturalized citizen in 2011, in a ceremony aboard the USS Constitution, thus bringing an outsider’s insight, perspective and appreciation of the nation to the table, alongside a very real love for and pride in his adopted country. It’s a hymn to E pluribus unum, a celebration of all the good in American history, while in no way ignoring the bad.