United We Differ History, Geography, Ingenuity Have Made 'E Pluribus Unum' a Reality

By Shribman, David | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

United We Differ History, Geography, Ingenuity Have Made 'E Pluribus Unum' a Reality


Shribman, David, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


"THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES: AMERICA'S EXPLORERS, INVENTORS, ECCENTRICS AND MAVERICKS, AND THE CREATION OF ONE NATION, INDIVISIBLE"

By Simon Winchester.

Harper ($29.95).

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.

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. …

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