Monday, November 25, 2013

Apart ("The Men Who United the States" by Simon Winchester)

The major theme of Simon Winchester's The Men Who United the States is, not surprisingly, unity--a word Winchester himself uses throughout with purpose and precision, if not careless school-boy abandon. And, on one level, his focus on cohesion makes perfect sense:  over 500-plus pages and four centuries of history, Winchester traces the attempts--most successful, some not--to bring areas of our growing and changing nation together, one acre or mountain pass at a time. From the post-Revolutionary era, when small bands of men roamed the uncharted Louisiana Purchase in search of the Pacific Coast, to the 19th and 20th centuries, when inventors spanned the nation not with coaches and canoes but telegraph and telephone wire, this is the ever-growing story of how we strive to bring every last home and family into the grand American web.

However, as Winchester's book moves from the untamed American wilderness to the taming generators and transformers of modern times, something surprising takes shape beneath its narrative surface, and it's not altogether encouraging. In Winchester's first chapter, the United States has no master other than itself:  it is unmapped, unexplored, and unknown.* By the book's closing pages, he's narrowed the focus to the American living room--the new land of discovery, of radios and televisions and wi-fi. We've begun our journey on the most epic of scales--an entire country--and finished in an area measuring three hundred square feet. If this is the story of American ingenuity--of its endless need to explore, invent, harness, advance--it's a bittersweet closing number to what, until then, has been a grand and patriotic opera.

We as a country pride ourselves on our rough beginnings and wholly original national character, and our history was never destined to be like that of our European and Asian ancestors. We did not have emperors or monarchs, nor could we boast vast palatial estates or grand museums; instead, our rulers lived humbly and governed through pragmatism, their humanness a far greater legacy in many cases than their political achievements. Monticello and Mount Vernon would never measure up to Versailles, just as the eras of men like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln were bound to end with them, not tremble on through sons and grandsons. The American crown was a marked ballot, its palace a home built on the sweat of slaves. The bloodlines of its powerful were one thousand different rivers leading not towards thrones but away from them, into log cabins and onto battlefields and even down the well-walked streets of Chicago.

It's this unpredictability, this wildness, that marks American history as something unique on the world's stage. Our birth and growth as a nation was dichotomous and dirty, and even today the legacies of those men and women who brought forth that new nation are grappled with, studied, shied away from and forgotten, as even Winchester himself points out. Taming the various frontiers of America--the land and water, the air, the engines--meant taming the very spirit of our country and its people, in much the same way grand animals throw themselves at gates and cages, yearning to be free. What happened to America was, in its own way, unnatural, even though it was also necessary and unavoidable at the same time. To see this warm, wild history descend from the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon into well-furnished living rooms and hand-held devices is somewhat appalling in its own way--a sign that, as a nation, our landscape is not the only aspect of our animal selves that has been tamed beyond rehabilitation. 

The subtitle of Winchester's book--whether chosen by the author himself or prescribed by his publisher, I'm unsure--reads, "America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible." It's that last word--indivisible--that is the curse of Winchester's otherwise enthralling unity hypothesis, for while all of these men--not to mention their work--certainly did help to bring states and homes together, they also moved us towards a contemporary society that, in bringing us all together under the umbrella of Internet and television, also surreptitiously pushed us away from one another. We live one text message, Skype conversation, Tweet, or phone call away from each other--from almost anyone within our nation's borders--and yet we're desperately far away, hidden not behind miles of empty desert, towering mountain ranges, or thundering rivers, but screen names, apps, icons, and anonymous online profiles. We've spent hundreds of years spanning every possible acre of American wilderness, only to find ourselves shut inside our own individual technologies--our own crowning achievements. We've united, certainly, but less as a nation of independent people and more a land of 300 million lonely tribes, divisible by our own choosing.

*The presence of millions of Native Americans was not a concern to those early pioneers and homesteaders, just as it's not much of a concern to Winchester himself. His book is almost entirely focused on the impact of white, European men and their disregard for cultural respect...something in which American history is, sad to say, not lacking.