FLOATING WEST by Russell Bourne


The Erie and Other American Canals
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 Charles Dickens, during his American lecture tour, compared traveling by canal to ``a whirlwind''; but actress Fanny Kemble found the whole experience to be ``a humiliation.'' So reports Bourne (The Red King's Rebellion, 1990), who, in this history of the Erie Canal and its rival waterways, paints a panoramic picture of 19th-century America that's as perceptive as it is entertaining. After a slightly monochromatic start in which he sketches in the background--the construction of Louis XIV's monumental Canal du Midi, the trial-and-error methods used in building the rudimentary Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts, the opposing Federalist and Jeffersonian approaches to social and economic policy-making in the infant republic--former American Heritage editor Bourne brightens his canvas with sprightly anecdotes, and offers numerous insights into the varied forces that shaped the American psyche. He persuasively argues that, with the flowering of the canal system (and, a bit later, the railroads), ``for the first time people-in- motion were recognized as what American life is about.'' Among scores of other topics, Bourne investigates how the end of slavery in New York State and the burgeoning Irish immigration contributed- -in the form of a labor force eager to work, even at skinflint wages--to the canal system's rapid expansion. The author's survey of radical religious groups--the Mormons, the Millerites, John Humphrey Noyes's Perfectionists--that coalesced during this socially unstable period is a model of concise yet resonant research. And, in a subtly reasoned passage, he points out how, in choosing names for their upstate New York villages (Troy, Carthage, Utica, Rome), the ``Yankee-Yorkers'' hoped to evoke the classical Golden Age that they were convinced they were re-creating in the wilderness. Solid scholarship, leavened with wit and charm: a delightful excursion into the American past. (Fifty b&w photographs.)

Pub Date: June 8th, 1992
ISBN: 0-393-03044-X
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1992