Although, according to Simon Winchester, there is only one woman who had any part to play in the creation of the United States as we know it (Sacagawea wins that distinction), feminist scholars are giving the author of THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES a good thorough ribbing --- and rightly so. How did Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger and Lucy Stone not contribute directly to the democractic amalgamation that is now the United States of America? I am perplexed. However, Winchester is such an entertaining writer that I put aside my progressive historical predilections and dived in to see what he did think was the glue that brought us all together --- and what a glue it is.
Winchester wrote one of my favorite history books ever --- THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary --- and he is, like America’s own Doris Kearns Goodwin, capable of finding the perfect balance between gossipy conversation and historical provocation. THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES moves from the East to Westward Ho! with an elegance and insouciant headiness that most readers will find compelling and entrancing.
Lewis and Clark (and lone lady historical figure Sacagawea), the canal system, the interstate roadways and the telegraph are all occurrences and events that led America in its expansion from 13 warring colonies to the uneasy but still united conglomeration that is the present 50 states. Winchester finds interesting parallels between the inventiveness of some of his figures and the old-fashioned bravery and honor of others. Eccentrics stand toe to toe with topographers and other linear thinkers in a journey that benefited both from pragmatic business-like planning and out-of-the-box, shoot-for-the-stars thinking. THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES finds both types of explorer beneficial to our part of the continent.
"If you have any interest in history, this book should do well by you. If you have not before, take a deep breath and plunge in. Most of what Winchester is saying wouldn’t make for a good Twitter tweet, but it will stay with you and inform your life in ways you can’t imagine until you try."
Lewis and Clark are obvious choices to man the journey of this book; they did man the most important westward expansion our young country had ever known, and their bravery is still felt today. However, the transcontinental railroad and the first geological map both present new characters about whom we don’t know as much, like Theodore Judah and William Maclure. Winchester follows in their footsteps, watching closely at each level of their intrepid explorership for the clues as to why their journeys were so successful in forming the world in which we still live today. The people jump off the page; we feel like we are reading daily records of their dealings and difficulties. Never has construction seemed quite so fascinating.
In our tech-heavy world, we are all so bewitched by the little gadgets in our hands that connect us to the world (and marketing companies and the NSA to boot) that we can barely raise our heads to think about the PAST as opposed to the present. But THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES marks these important events of the past with such intellectual pursuit that Winchester’s energy draws us right back in time. Don’t read this one on a Nook. Buy the book, feel the weight of the words and drawings and maps and photos in your hand, and ponder them. Ponder the past and see the future arise from it at each turn. Like some kind of 3D IMAX film, this book makes history come alive.
Winchester is a journalist at heart but a journalist from another time --- a time when it wasn’t about how many hits you got or how many times you could update a post to improve your hits. He comes from a world (The Atlantic Magazine, to be exact) where details are good and appreciated, where context is just as important as content, where bravery has nothing to do with artisanal cheese or some other such trending topic, but with true forward-thinking and the creativity of real human beings.
If you have any interest in history, this book should do well by you. If you have not before, take a deep breath and plunge in. Most of what Winchester is saying wouldn’t make for a good Twitter tweet, but it will stay with you and inform your life in ways you can’t imagine until you try. Now if only a feminist scholar could write something as expansive and rich about women’s contributions to the world in which we live. Well, I can put that on my Santa list. In the meantime, put THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES on your holiday wish list right now. It will be an awesome new addition to your library of actual print books, something you will live in for days. A laudable effort, indeed.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on November 27, 2013