'The Men Who United the States:' United we differ

History, geography, ingenuity have made ‘E pluribus unum’ a reality

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What about us makes us the U.S.?

This is a question that has been pondered since de Crevecoeur (whose meditations on the subject were written in 1782) and de Tocqueville (who chimed in a half century later). Now Simon Winchester, who like Crevecoeur was born abroad but became American, has raised his hand with theories of his own. In "The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible,'' the author of "The Professor and the Madman" offers what he calls "a parsing of the rich complexities that lie behind the country's so-simple-sounding motto: E pluribus unum.''

The result is a brisk and bracing race through American history, geography, geology -- and ingenuity, with a dash of psychology and sociology thrown in. The task is like the national motto, simple sounding but difficult to achieve, for the United States, composed as it is of immigrants from so many lands, lacks a natural national demographic unity.

It had to build unity in other ways, principally through the zeal of invention, the cult of innovation, the national drive for prosperity -- and a surprising additional element: a vigorous debate about the role of government in creating wealth, assuring justice and cultivating equality.

By Simon Winchester.
Harper. $29.99.

The result is an imaginative book, a kind of rock/paper/scissors game where the narrative is divided into sections dealing with the country's experience with wood, rocks, fire, water and metal. This is not how history was taught to you in the fifth grade, but there is a logic and romance to the categories. Take the first one:

"Early America ran on wood. People had an urgent need of it for every aspect of life, from fuel to housing, from boat building to the making of crude paper and the construction of that most esteemed emblem of pioneer life, the log cabin.''

Into these categories Mr. Winchester fits an odd but engaging assortment of American characters, all intended to illuminate the American character: Lewis and Clark, the utopian visionaries of New Harmony, Samuel F.B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse. Johnny Carson makes a cameo appearance. This is your life, America.

So much of this includes the process of people traveling the way West, the ultimate American passage, traversing a land of great untapped (and, later, exploited and depleted) resources, keeping their eyes open to opportunity, to be sure, but also to the remarkable things they passed on the way. "They all went west to get somewhere, true; but they went also for the greater reasons, like getting to see all there is to see.''

Government-sponsored explorers of the 19th century were given a direct edict -- "permit nothing of notice to escape your attention'' -- that Mr. Winchester himself takes to heart in this volume. Very little of importance escapes his attention.

Which is why this book is so full of curiosities, like the recipe for an alcoholic libation called trader whiskey, which includes -- do not try this at home -- chewing gum, hot peppers and the heads of rattlesnakes. One additional curiosity: the virtual (and to many readers, inexplicable) absence of women and minorities.

That said, the book is populated by the colorful, like the one-armed John Wesley Powell ("perhaps the pre-eminent soldier-scientist-explorer of his day'') and the colorless, like Francis Parkman ("an indefatigable snob, a New England swell with money, ambition, courage and a Harvard education''), though with a clear preference for those who defied convention and in so doing defined the West and, thus, the whole country.

Mr. Winchester emphasizes what he considers the essence of America, which you might think of as a combination of elan and environment. For him, the physical shapes the emotional and the intellectual, and so he describes Yellowstone, with its marvels of magma, as "a hymn to active geology.''

Along the way he examines the vital role of rivers and canals in using, and in some cases, reshaping geography into destiny. He explains how the Mississippi River, which Lincoln once called the father of waters, unites (gathering all its tributaries and associated territories) and divides ("parsing the country into two -- with industry and academia and antique culture on the eastern side, pioneering and pasture land and cattle culture on the western side'').

And he lingers on the building of the railways and highways that also unite the country while dividing it physically. (Once the transcontinental railroad was finished, you couldn't walk unimpeded from the Mexican border to the Canadian without crossing rail track, a factor perhaps less important to the human than to the buffalo.)

This is a survey of the miracles of each age, or in some cases the poignant stories of the late-arriving conveniences of each age, especially rural electrification and radio, which, he says, assured that "the stories of the Down Easter were made familiar to a listener in Nevada, that the accents and thoughts of a man from Alabama or a woman from Arkansas could be heard and appreciated by a listener with an entirely different manner of speaking up on the high plains of North Dakota or among the sierras and arroyos of New Mexico.''

This book is the story of those differences and the centripetal forces that bring us together. It's Winchester's story, but its also our story.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).

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