THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM: The Building of the Panama Canal by Ian Cameron

THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM: The Building of the Panama Canal

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This straight, accessible, nicely illustrated history of the construction of the Panama Canal will not replace Gerstle Mack's definitive The Land Divided (1944) nor does it add measurably to the story of the French debacle and the American success in hacking a waterway through the isthmus ""of fever and of flood."" Cameron writes well enough and his research is comprehensive but after a time his exaggerated claims become cloying: is the Canal really ""the greatest attempt man has ever made to alter the physical configuration of the world he lives in""? is it ""the greatest feat of engineering in the history of the world""? Cameron also contradicts himself occasionally, tripped up by a tendency to interlock historical reality and romance. For instance he suggests, correctly, that the French effort failed not ""because of chicanery and inefficiency"" (the generally accepted thesis) but because engineering technology simply was not far enough advanced in the 1870's; later, however, when eulogizing de Lesseps, the Frenchman who built Suez but stumbled badly in Central America, Cameron attributes his lack of success to ""the machinations of politicians and financiers."" Likewise, Cameron becomes misty when resuscitating additional Canal heroes, e.g., lamenting that Jackson ""Square-foot"" Smith, an administrator who handled feeding and housing of laborers during the American thrust, ""ill deserves the obscurity into which he has fallen."" The most controversial section of Cameron's book is the epilogue in which he speculates about the possibility of a new canal; he favors blasting through Caledonia Bay with nuclear bombs, wondering only what will become of the ""half-breeds"" and Cuna Indians who now live there: ""One hopes they will leave willingly."" For such a mottled romantic about the past, Cameron shows a contemptible insensitivity to the present.

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 1971
Publisher: Morrow