Using a nifty structure around the five classic elements of wood, earth, water, fire and metal, Winchester (Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, 2010, etc.) celebrates the brains and brawn that forged America’s Manifest Destiny.
The author tells the story of the tremendous movement East to West of pioneers, explorers, miners, mappers and inventors whose collective labors made the U.S. truly e pluribus unum. Men take most of the spotlight here. Lewis and Clark’s Native American guide Sacagawea is one of the only females singled out by the author, who writes that she was “the key that opened the gates of the West and allowed the white men through.” Nonetheless, Winchester can tell a good yarn with evident relish, enlisting the element in question to aid in delineating his big themes: Thomas Hutchins’ visionary survey system of 1785 became the model for parceling up the vast expanse of the American West, township by township; William Maclure made the first truly detailed geological map of the U.S. in 1809; the discovery of the “fall line” in many American rivers suddenly rendering them impassable prompted the brilliant use of the canal system as employed by Loammi Baldwin; the building of the interstate road system, beginning with the very first in Cumberland, Md., constructed by John McAdam’s new crushed-rock method in 1812; and finally, the advent of the ubiquitous telegraph wires across the country by 1860, carrying information and spelling the beginning of the new age and the end of the old. In between these milestones are a myriad other stories of American ingenuity, which Winchester recounts with enormous gusto and verve.
Another winning book from a historian whose passion for his subjects saturates his works.