THE ARTIFICIAL RIVER by Carol Sheriff

THE ARTIFICIAL RIVER

The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 An enligihtening work of social history that makes a now familiar feature of the American landscape the focus of an exploration of 19th-century perceptions of progress, politics, and the common good. In 1817, when the first spadeful of dirt was overturned in upstate New York for the Erie Canal, crowds were festive, those present united in the call to ``finish God's work in shaping the New World.'' In 1862, when the widening of the 363-mile waterway built to connect Albany and Buffalo was completed, no celebration was held: The public was not only used to the convenience of this great accomplishment, but ready to move on to a more advanced form of transportation--the railroad. Yet Sheriff (History/Coll. of William and Mary) does more than trace the ways this artificial waterway became ``second nature.'' In well-structured chapters she shows how the Erie Canal changed Americans' views about property, business ethics, and labor. Damages to land along the canal, for instance, led to the assessment of land in terms of market, rather than agricultural, value. Particularly informative is Sheriff's history of how the canal reflected the rising public debate over ideas during the antebellum period, focusing on public morality, republicanism, and especially the common good, which in large part came to mean serving the needs of wealth-producing business. Sheriff is best in drawing episodes to illustrate such situations--the changing perception of ``canallers,'' the development of the Democratic and Whig parties. She is less successful in bringing to life some of the influential individuals of the day, like New York State governor DeWitt Clinton. Though lacking the humanist expansiveness that adds literary heft, this study succeeds in providing early examples of some still unresolved problems of a capitalist democracy--the place of the worker and the responsibilities of state and business to a community. (drawings and maps, not seen)

Pub Date: July 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-8090-2753-4
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1996