‘THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES’

Wall Street Journal on October 14, 2013, published a review by Richard Snow of Richard Winchesters new book, The Men Who United the States, Harper, 493 pages, $29.99. Excerpts below:

I had always thought that the tumbleweed—”a ghostly botanical thing looking like a bouffant hairpiece,” as Simon Winchester describes it in his vivid, valuable book—disturbed the stegosaurus in its grazing. But no: This fixture of the American West arrived in a sack of flax carried by settlers to the Dakotas in the 1870s, not even a fraction of a second compared with the near-eternal ancestry I’d believed the weed could claim.

The Men Who United the States is all about recent arrivals. Mr. Winchester (himself something of a recent arrival, being naturalized in 2011) explores the alchemy that made residents and settlers come to feel part of a country whose whole turned out to be much more than parcels of real estate inhabited by people who didn’t have any evident common ties.

This is a story of many individuals, well known and less so, who worked, very often with no such goal in mind, to unite physically the various parts of the country. That this enterprise was largely a commercial one does nothing to diminish the somehow spiritual architecture of its results.

We start early, with Lewis and Clark, their journey through 2,000 unknown miles briskly and engagingly retold. The author goes on to describe the building of the canals, our first highways to a continental hegemony. In their infancy, they were reckless projects that forced their makers to learn how to build after costly, heartbreaking failure. To predict where the paths to our modernity could go, our forebears had to know something about the ground they would cover, and Mr. Winchester’s book is especially fine on retrieving the forgotten map makers, geologists, topographers and engineers who showed them the way.

One of these men had the unique distinction of both defining the Union and saving it. In 1858, Gouverneur Warren completed a map, “an elegant triumph of cartography,” Mr. Winchester writes, “that still reigns supreme in the intellectual history of American mapmaking.” It covered the entirety of the country from the 100th meridian (an approximate demarcation of East from West) to the Pacific and suggested the routes that the cross-country railroads would take when we had the wherewithal to build them.

Mr. Winchester has walked that ground, as well as driven many of the roads that his teeming cast had known. We read of a terrifying trip he took through the Donner Pass—that dip in the mountain wall that stood between the plains-crossing wagon trains and California—in a blinding blizzard.

The telegraph that linked the nation by wire; the telephone that followed; the explorers who showed us the “terrific geologic violence” of Yellowstone; FDR imperially scrawling across a map a few lines that would become our interstate highway system; Cal Rodgers piloting his 1911 Wright Flyer from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 49 days, despite 19 crashes—all are part of Mr. Winchester’s story,…

Mr. Winchester is by no means simply celebrating the hardihood and ingenuity of the builders of our nation. He is clear about the danger in any great expansion, for the explorers themselves, for those who stand in their way, and for those who come after and must live with legacies of decisions good and bad. Yet, what an extraordinary, propulsive tale he tells.

Standing by the Whiteman Air Force Base 70 miles outside Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Winchester wonders whether this military installation, which today can bring “massive firepower to bear, in a short time, anywhere on the globe,” was connected in spirit to Lewis and Clark’s “tiny, brave expedition” that once passed nearby. He believes, too, that the Internet is part of the story of the unification of the nation.

This current effort may not have its Meriwether Lewis or Gouverneur Warren. Such figures have been displaced by “technical men, hidden quietly out of sight in their blue-lit warehouses, surrounded by silent frenzies of blinking server lights.” Yet in our own era’s achievements there are echoes of the cry “O! The joy!” that Clark scrawled in his journal when he got what he thought was his first glimpse of the Pacific. As Mr. Winchester bracingly makes clear, your young daughter, who is right now checking something on Google, and I, who remember as a child being lifted by a grinning engineer up onto the deck of a seething steam locomotive, are fortunate in this shared legacy.

Mr. Snow is the author of I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford.

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