Most naturalized citizens have to learn something about America’s history. But Simon Winchester, the prolific British-born author who became an American citizen in 2011, tried to re-write it. His new book, The Men Who United the States, tells the nation’s history through the creation of its infrastructure—roads, canals, the telegraph, telephone, and electrical grid. Focusing on the many forgotten figures who brought these projects into being, he argues that these quotidian projects were critical to unifying a country of polyglot citizens. To write the book Winchester also went on an epic road trip, from New Harmony, Indiana to the Grand Canyon, following the footsteps of the geologists and engineers whose stories he sought to undercover. Partly a travelogue, The Men Who United the States is thus a deeply personal book, revealing unknown aspects of the nation’s past as well as the author’s. Winchester recently sat down with The Daily Beast’s Eric Herschthal in New York to discuss the book. What follows is a condensed, edited version of the interview.
You became an American citizen two years ago. How did that influence your decision to write this book?
I had long thought that America, on this particular part of its history, has been particularly hard on herself. As I was approaching the time to write the book, it was also the time of the financial meltdown, the Bush presidency—a number of things that made America, a large chunk of itself at least—feel disillusioned with itself and its standing in the world. I wanted essentially to say, I threw my lot in with this country because I believed in what it stands for. I wanted to write a book that, in essence, reminded everybody what a great experiment the United States is.
You’re reminding me of Christopher Hitchens, another Briton who became a naturalized American citizen and tried to sing its virtues.
That’s essentially my view, yes. I’ve been fascinated with America ever since I first arrived here, in 1963. I hitchhiked across the country after I had earned the money to travel here. I paid for that trip from a job in grade school as a mortician’s assistant, cutting up dead bodies.
But you ultimately decided to study geology at Oxford. How did you switch interests?
I grew up in in Britain close to the sea, and always wanted to be a sailor. I applied to Dartmouth—ours, not yours; it’s the school for the Royal Navy—but when I had to take the visual exam, it was a travesty. The examiner said, “I’m afraid Her Majesty looks with disfavor upon those who cannot tell red from green.” He said I should think of something else to do.
The chap who taught me geography in school, after I told him that I wanted to wander around the world, said the best option other than being on a ship was to travel around the world with a hammer, a microscope, a compass and a bottle of acids. He recommended I take the Oxford University entrance exam in geology, and I did fairly well.
It’s a far more ethnically diverse place than many other countries; it should, on the face of it, be far more disunited than it actually is.
Your background in geology has a big influence on this book. You highlight several forgotten geologists who helped map the nation’s new lands.
My background as a geologist is a major influence on this book, as it is on many of my books. Geology, literally, as I say in this book, “underlies everything.” It shows in this wood room, and the trees from which it was built, to the plastic, and the petroleum from which it was made.
As for the American geologists I write about, it’s amazing how few people know of them, even geologists in London. Several years ago I wrote a book called The Map That Changed the World, which was about the first geological map, supposedly produced by William Smith in London in 1815. Wrong: it turns out the first geological map produced anywhere was made in the United States in 1809 by William Maclure. I had never heard of him either, and I very much wanted to resurrect him and people like him.
Another little-known figure you feature is Clarence King, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey in the late 19th century.
Yes, he’s a fascinating figure. He lived a double-life. He was an über-elite, a graduate of Harvard and Yale. He said he had no time for women, but secretly married a black woman, Ada Copeland, a former slave, and lived with her in New York. He lived with her for twenty years, never telling her his real identity as a renowned geologist. He told her his name was James Todd and despite that he looked white, he told her he was in fact black.
Did you want to make a broader point about America with him?
Yes, he does say something about American society, which so frowned on miscegenation in the 1870s. It beggars belief today that such duplicity was necessary.
The book makes the case that hard, physical things—roads, telephone lines, computers—unified America. Does that give short shrift to ideas, or a common culture?
I could have focused on more abstract things—the English language, democracy —but the physical infrastructure unified this country too. The abstract things are, in any case, obvious.
You emphasize how important big government was in these projects, from the building of canals and railroads to the Internet’s basic infrastructure. The size of the federal government is a hotly debated issue these days. Did the current debates prompt you to emphasize government’s role in the book?
I think my focus on the government developed as I was writing the book, particularly as the attacks on big government were becoming more shrill from the right-wing of the Republican Party today. One of the not insignificant ironies I discovered while doing the research was that one of the first power plants to connect rural regions was in the district of Ohio that happens to have elected John Boehner. I tweeted that fact the other day, saying that John Boehner, the big government foe, had his district get electricity in 1935 thanks to FDR.
You also highlight forgotten places—New Harmony, Indiana; North Platte, Nebraska—offering a sort of alternative history of great American cities.
Yes, I just gave a speech in New England the other day, and just one person out of 200 had ever heard of New Harmony, Indiana. And yet this place was so important in the 1820s. [Maclure established a free science-based college in New Harmony for working-class students].
The Men Who United the States laments the way contemporary radio talk-shows and cable news have broken the original unifying mission of radio and television. In effect, your whole book can be read as a cry against the increasingly atomized, fragmented nature of contemporary American life. Was that your intent?
I accept that, and give a nod to that toward the end. But I didn’t really think of this book as a sociology of contemporary America; it was more of an attempt to look back at the people who attempted to bring it together. It’s a hymn to unity, and one not enjoyed by any other country in the world. And yet it’s a far more ethnically diverse place than many other countries; it should, on the face of it, be far more disunited than it actually is.
Yet you mention the Civil War in the book, the most divisive moment in America’s history. The war takes place right in the middle of your book’s timeframe, but it’s mentioned only in passing. Did the book’s theme force you to diminish the Civil War’s importance?
The Civil War was clearly an aberration in American society and of profound significance. I didn’t want to minimize the episode, but I didn’t want to get bogged down in it either. It wasn’t what I was writing about.
Were there any figures you were really surprised to learn about in writing this book?
The man who I thought was most moving was Reginald Fessenden. He discovered how to transmit the human voice by radio in 1906. Up until that point you could only transmit dots and dashes, Morse Code, through radio. I’m going ask you to listen for a moment…
[Winchester pulls out his iPhone.]
…You really have to imagine this moment. Fessenden has built a huge radio transmitter in a place called Brant Rock, Massachusetts. He’s adapted the technology that Marconi developed in 1902 to transmit signals, like Morse Code, to carry human speech for the first time.
Fessenden first sends a message using Morse Code to ships out in the Atlantic, carrying things like bananas for the United Fruit Company. He tells them to tune in just before midnight on Christmas Eve. It happens to be a dark and stormy night; there’s a blizzard in the northwest Atlantic just off Cape Cod, the Long Island Sound. The ships get the message and turn on their radios at midnight on Christmas. And they hear this—
[A slow, grainy aria plays on his iPhone; it’s Emmi Leiser singing from Handel’s Xerxes.]
—This is the first music ever transmitted in the world. Now just think: you’re a radio transmitter and you never heard anything like this before. You realize, by this happening, it enabled the national conversation to begin. By this happening, America began talking to herself by radio. It changed everything.