Reviewed by: Adam IP Smith
Author: Simon Winchester
Publisher: William Collins
Price (RRP): £25
On one level this is, as the title promises, a book about dead white men doing great deeds. They’re not all famous, and those who linger in the memory don’t feature in school textbooks: ‘Crazy’ Ted Judah, the man who charted the route of the first railroad across the Rockies but who died of malaria before his dream was realised, or John Fitch, who took his own life after failing to persuade anyone that his steam-powered boat on the Delaware river was the wave of the future.
But this book also makes clear that – behind all these rugged (or endearingly puny) individuals who contributed to the ‘conquering’ of the North American continent or who invented machines that enabled people to get across it – there was invariably the hand of what Americans would now call ‘big government’. When Lewis and Clark set out to map a route to the Pacific in 1804, they did so with presidential backing. Pioneers didn’t just stumble upon gold; their paths were paved by federally financed geological surveys.
The real heroes of this story, though, are not explorers, inventors, or their government, but the fundamental forces they used to envelop and subdue their world. This book’s cleverness lies in an organisation neither chronological nor biographical, but elemental: there are sections on wood, earth, water, fire and metal. Such categorisation leads to some occasional contrivance, but in the hands of as skilful a writer as Simon Winchester, the reader barely notices. In any case, the big picture is surely right: it was wood – the forests that covered much of the land – that dominated early exploration. Waterways, fire-powered steam, and metal (from railroads and telegraph lines to fibre-optic cables) are manifestly the means by which Americans have pursued what was, in the 19th century, called their ‘destiny’ to bind the continent under one government – with that government’s hand never far away.
This is also Winchester’s personal story – of his quixotic purchase of a piece of land in Montana, of old-timers that he met on road trips, of visits to what once would have been called one-horse towns that played some long-forgotten role in the epic of the taming of a continent. This is an imaginative piece of historical writing, interwoven with memoir. But it is, in the end, more than either of those things: it is a love poem to the American landscape and to the spirit of people, now dead, who traversed it.
Adam IP Smith, University College London