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VINE VOICEon August 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A story told by a new American, about America as he sees it. Mr. Simon Winchester has actually spent more time traveling the US than I have, but he has only been a citizen for two years. Funny how immigrants can see more about the US than some of us born here. This is surely the case here.

He is very well traveled and writes like a storyteller. Mr. Winchester also utilizes a technique I have never seen used before (in a western style book). He divides his story into five sections; Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. He weaves his stories about these men (yes, mostly men) who formed the United States of America around these five important aspects of our earth. So, for example, the section about wood talks about how different men in America saw and designed uses for wood to move America forward. These gentlemen are not all common household names. There is Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Washington, Edison, Bell and other names we know. But he explains how names such as Fremont, Powell, McAdam, Judah, MacDonald, Tesla and other forgotten names should be just as important. After reading this fascinating book, I agree that these other men need recognition too.

I knew a lot of this information, but it is told in a totally different manner. Kinda like driving the same road to work, but in a different car. Same drive, but not the same drive. That is how I felt. I feel it was important for me to read Mr. Winchester's book "The Men Who United the States". Hope this helps someone.
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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Simon Winchester's tome is an ambitious attempt to connect individuals and technologies with the physical and emotional unification of the United States using the five so-called classical elements of Eastern philosophy: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. This ambitious project falls short, but not for want of trying.

The book begins (Part I: When America's Story was Dominated by Wood, 1793-1805) with an unfortunate choice: the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This section is superficial and unfocused, with significant errors in important details. Interested in Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery? Read Stephen E. Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West" for a more in-depth and coherent account.

A much better choice than Lewis and Clark is suggested in Winchester's own epilog about the role of a new newspaper in the unification of his small town. A discussion of the role of print (on paper made from wood pulp) in the form of newspapers, books, essays, and magazines would have met the requirements of his classical element. It would also have made the section jibe with the rest of the book in which technology plays a significant role in his theme of unification. Consider Paul Revere's propaganda engraving, "The Bloody Massacre in King-Street," March 5, 1770 advertised in newspapers across the colonies, and the availability of inexpensive paperbacks read by soldiers in World War II as ways that print technology has unified Americans.

Since this review is based on an uncorrected, pre-publication copy, perhaps some of the following errors will be caught before final publication:

--Winchester cites Meriwether Lewis' scant botanical knowledge--perhaps he means scant formal knowledge, since Lewis received training in botany with both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Smith Barton, University of Pennsylvania professor and author of the country's first textbook on botany. Barton taught Lewis proper techniques and botanical vocabulary to the point that later analysts marveled at Lewis' remarkable grasp of the subject.

--There is confusion about the difference between an air rifle, with which Native Americans had no experience and were startled by its relative quiet, and a traditional rifle that Native Americans knew about and coveted.

--Called an encampment, Fort Clatsop was actually a fort built of wood with gates that could be closed if the local Native Americans became too inquisitive or demanding.

--Winchester's old-fashioned historical explanation for the Civil War is particularly off base. He notes that there were few railroads in the American South, which led to the isolation of the South, which in turn led to the willingness of the southern states to secede. Rather than isolation, Civil War/Reconstruction historians such as Eric Foner and James McPherson make it clear that slavery was THE cause of the war. Winchester caps his discussion by calling it the "War Between the States" (traditionally a Southern name for the war--at least he didn't call it "The War of Northern Aggression") and noting the "shameful horrors" of the war. Exactly what is shameful about enforcing the methods of democracy, preserving the Union (Winchester's theme, after all), and ending slavery? Winchester does not elaborate.

--At least one other misunderstanding occurs in Part V: "When the American Story was Told Through Metal, 1835-Tomorrow." In discussing the New Deal, Winchester states, "[Numerous government programs] were rammed through Congress by Presidential Fiat (and later found to have been unconstitutional . . . )." Winchester confuses Executive Orders (as in the Bank Holiday) and a democratically-controlled legislature passes legislation in an emergency, with a monarchial or a parliamentary system in which the executive has more control over legislative action.

--One last correction: Only two of the many New Deal Programs were found unconstitutional: the National Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the AAA was later rewritten to be constitutional (see Arthur Schlesinger's "The National Experience").

If, however, the reader sets aside these concerns, there is quite a bit to enjoy in "The Men Who United the States." All the sections include unsung heroes and fascinating discussions of the technology they used to unite the country.

"Part II: When America's Story went Beneath the Earth, 1809-1901." Most Americans are unfamiliar with the geologic surveys that showed both farmers and industrialists more precisely what was waiting for them in the West and what would commercially benefit the East. Also forgotten is the role that New Harmony, Indiana (the failed utopian community) played in education and especially the training of geologists who would lead the first geologic surveys of the Plains and Far West.

"Part III: When the American Story Traveled by Water, 1803-1900." The story of the Erie Canal is famed in story and song, but the history of the Chicago Sanitary Canal and the potential danger it poses to the Great Lakes is unfortunately overlooked in today's ecological debate.

"Part IV: When the American Story was Fanned by Fire, 1811-1956." (A quibble with the title: doesn't one fan the fire, not the reverse?) This part focuses on transportation, from railroads to cars. An interesting section is on the development of the interstate highway system under Thomas MacDonald, head of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. Especially intriguing is the debate over what route numbers each state and highway would receive--a surprising story about Kentucky and Rt. 66.

"Part V: When the American Story was Told Through Metal, 1835-Tomorrow." Part V contains a discussion of different forms of communications, from the telegraph through the Internet, including the telephone, radio, and television. These stories are replete with all of the ins and outs of competition, some of them macabre. Virtually unknown is the story of the development of Public Radio and Bill Siemering who developed its philosophy and spearheaded its development, which Winchester sees as an object lesson in the clash between idealism and capitalism.

Any one of the parts of the book or its subtopics would justify an extensive book on its own, but Winchester gives us a satisfying sampling of most. "The Men Who United the States" is a fascinating look at the men and technologies that physically unified the country. It includes unsung heroes--men who are well worth remembering.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The story of the United States was once told as the history of its explorers, pioneers, and inventors, men like Benjamin Franklin, Lewis and Clark, and Thomas Alva Edison. These were experimenters, risk takers, and adventurers who weren't content to follow an easy path through life, and instead defined a new country that was different from the one they or their ancestors came from, and a new century. Sadly, that way of viewing history has fallen out of favor, at least in academic circles, in favor of a new collective myth, in which masses of immigrants brought all of their culture with them and created not so much a new kind of state as they did a buffet of old world cultures.

Perhaps that's why it fell to an immigrant to re-tell the story of America as it was once told. Simon Winchester, the author of a number of excellent popular histories, is an Englishman who, contrary to most of his contemporaries in the UK, still sees the US as the embodiment of progress, and actually became a US citizen. His history of the US begins with Thomas Jefferson, and the birth of the Corps of Discovery, that great and ambitious project that resuled in the voyage of Lewis and Clarke to the Pacific coast and back, returning with a description of the lands to the West. It ends with the story of J.C.R. Licklider, a man whose role in the creation of the Internet and interactive computing has only begin to be recognized outside of a narrow group of computer pioneers (see The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal). In between are the stories of the Louisiana Purchase, the wars with Mexico, the railroads, the grand canyon, oil, the great intercontinental highway system, and much, much, more, all told via the lives of the individuals who pioneered these inventions, projects, and discoveries.

Some of the names in the story, like Lewis and Clark, and Samuel F.B. Morse, will be familiar to most readers; most of the names here are far less well known. There's Jedediah Smith, who blazed a path that the wagons of the pioneers followed through the Great Divide. Clarence King, leader of the first great US Geological Survey. Jesse Hawley, who argued for what became the Erie Canal. Llewellyn Cooke, a man perhaps as important as Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse in electrifying America.

Winchester brings all of these stories together into a narrative that travels both through time and across the country, never losing the thread of the narrative that ties his story together. This book has all the wit and charm of his earlier books, like The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.) or The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (P.S.), but on an even grander scale. If I have one objection, it's that despite his stories of the importance oif the individual in this narrative, Winchester can't quite disabuse himself of the notion that it's the existence of a large and powerful government that makes it all possible. "What eventually set this new America apart from the original America," he writes, ""is that, through all of the republic's years, there existed agencies that were deliberately bent to the task of creating community, creating the practical means for the forging of alliances for the public good." I think in this statement, Winchester misses the essence of the United States. The European nations had many such agencies, and strong central control and planning, and yet they largely stagnated for centuries, while the US grew from a tiny settlement into the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world in just over 150 years.

But that's really only a small part of Winchester's narrative, and it takes nothing away from the wonderful job he's done here in creating a popular work that restores the role of the individual in creating the world we live in to its proper place in history.
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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The first Simon Winchester book I read was "The Professor and The Madman." I liked it so much I bought several copies and gave them as gifts to my friends.

I have read several of Mr. Winchester's books since then and they have not met my expectations. Usually they begin interestingly enough but eventually become a bit of a bore. I picked up "The Men Who United The States" hoping for a turn-around.

The book is a puzzlement to me. It contains some interesting facts of which I was previously unaware; but the writing is a bit desultory. One minute we are in the 18th century and in the next minute we're talking about B-2 bombers in hidden silos from which they periodically rumble out and rise into the air on secret missions. And the next minute we are back in the days of Thomas Jefferson again.

And there's an unusual structure into which the author tries to fit the narrative of the book. This structure comes from an ancient Chinese concept of the five classical elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. I was first introduced to this Chinese concept as a youngster at summer camp. Basically, we were told that everything is at bottom one thing but that this one thing appears in five different forms: wood, fire, earth, metal, or water. Wood becomes fire. Fire becomes ashes (or earth); then the earth gets squeezed and becomes metal, and the metal somehow becomes water, and the water becomes wood again. I became skeptical when wood became fire and fire became earth, but when earth became metal and metal became water I really thought the camp counsellors had gone nuts.

When I voiced my doubts about this setup at summer camp, the counsellors began to hedge...well, metal didn't really become water...it provided a place for water to gather...like maybe a cup or a pipe. Well, I didn't swallow it. It made no sense to me when I was a 10 year old kid away at camp; and it continues to make no sense to me today. Why couldn't the wood become a cup or a pipe? Why did wood first have to turn into fire and then turn into metal? Wood cups would make things much more simple. Then we could just have two elements. Wood, Water, Wood, Water. Well, I think you get the gist.

I found "When The American Story Was Fanned by Fire" and "When The American Story Travelled by Water," etc. In The Men Who United The States rather pointless divisions. But again, maybe high-schoolers might like it.

I read every word of this book for the first fifty pages. It was a struggle for me, and I simply couldn't go on. So to be as fair as possible to the author, I read sample sections from the remainder of the book prior to writing this review. I came away realizing that many people will indeed enjoy reading the book but the book just wasn't for me. It reminded me of breaking up with a girl many years ago. The girl was nice, pleasant, beautiful etc., and she couldn't fathom why I didn't love her. And I told her something along the lines of "It's not your fault. You are wonderful and beautiful....it's me. It's my fault." or something along those lines. I think we all go through this.

The preface of the book begins with the author recounting his emotions and high hopes as he listenes to President Obama's 2nd Inaugural address. I thought this was an unusual way to begin a book about the uniting of the States, but I went along with the author, figuring this was the last I would hear about our sitting President. However, President Obama pops up at least twice more during the author's recounting of the Lewis & Clark Expedition back in 1804-1805. When describing the meeting between Lewis & Clark and the representatives of the main branch of the Sioux Indians the author tells us that President Obama recommended Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull as role models to his daughters; and a bit later on in a footnote the author tells us how the President in 2013 ordered two B-2 bombers to fly non-stop 7,000 miles to Korea to drop dummy bombs on an airstrip as a show of strength to the leader of North Korea.

In the Korean incident I think the author was actually a bit unfair to President Obama. The footnote mentions North Korea and The Korean Peninsula, and the careless reader might infer that we dropped two dummy bombs on North Korea, a most provocative move, whereas we actually dropped the dummy bombs on an airfield in South Korea, our ally.

Then we come to Sacagawea. We are all familiar with the story of Sacagawea, and the author adds a few interesting details here. But when the author rambles off to discuss the old movie staring the "Iowa-born white All-American beauty Donna Reed," and Charlton Heston and Fred MacMurray, and the Sacagawea coin, and who designed the coin, and the Sacagawea postage stamps which were designed with a Japanese-Cherokee actress named Mizuo Peck posing as the model of Sacagawea, I realized that I was not really reading history, but more an agglomeration of tabloid type factoids. And as I told the fore-mentioned young lady when I broke off our relationship..."It isn't you. You're wondrful and beautiful. It's me."

So I jumped through the rest of the book looking for something to rekindle my interest. What I discovered was more of the same. In 'The American Story Told Through Metal' section we get to meet celebreties like Johnny Carson, of the Johnny Carson Show. President Nixon shows up somewhere. Even Sherlock Holmes gets a mention. I understand that these references can act as touchstones for younger people and perhaps get them interested in real history, but it was clear that the book was not to my tastes. And I am no historian. I am just old.

So I shall continue to recommend Mr. Winchester's "The Professor and the Madman" to one and all. And I think Mr. Winchester is quite intelligent and admirable in many ways. But, sorry to say, his most recent effort was not for me. You, however, might enjoy it very much. I'm sure it will be a best-seller.
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on December 19, 2013
I was hoping for a book that delved into stories about all of the founders and explorers who shaped this nation. The book offers some of that but I found it rather distracting the way the author would often go off on tangents about his own life experiences in America. One other point that somewhat puzzled me: the author seemed to be infatuated with National Public Radio while criticizing commercial radio. Forgetting about the obvious biases inherent in NPR, if it is so great why does it require taxpayer funding to keep it alive? This whole NPR narrative seemed to be out of place for the subject matter of the book. Maybe the author was just trying to vent some of his own bias.
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on October 28, 2014
Almost from the beginning the author states a political position and interprets all through this lens. He meanders worse than the Mississippi, he was running on at one point about a Senator's untimely death and another time about nuclear silos all in regards to a Lewis and Clark stop off - talk about the stop off not your person recollections. I didn't get far on the book because I kept wondering what was the purpose of what he was reminiscing about. The author needs a better editor, it should either have been sold as Simon Winchester's thoughts on American Expansion or the editor should have had him get rid of all the ramblings. Only reason I didn't give this one star was he briefly quoted a great series of essays by Fredrick Jackson Turner.
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on April 19, 2015
Certain authors like Bill Bryson, Hampton Sides, Erik Lawson and Simon Winchester have the ability to take history and tell the tale like an absorbing novel. This story was a treat since I had the audiobook version read by Simon Winchester his own self and who better to know what to emphasize in the telling, how to pace the work, and how to get to get a point across than the author? So it was a treat that helped the miles fly by on a recent 2,400 mile road trip. While I think his organizational theme -uniters of the states told in the context of the five basic elements - wood,fire, earth, metal and water - is a bit of an artifice, the story is very well done. Two aspects of the book which appealed to me were his personal comments visiting or living in some of the locations central to the story (He bought some acreage in Montana, prior to the invasion of the Hollywood types for $40,000 and was thrilled to sell it a few years later for $80,000 when he moved to Hong Kong. He relates that a realtor informed him recently that it sold for $1,200,000!) The other aspect I found appealing was the story of the lesser known people who made major contributions to our history and yet died in poverty and anonymity. Those aspects alone made the book worthy of the read. Interesting that Winchester, who is a naturalized American seems to have more respect for the potential and accomplishments of our nation than those of us who grew up here and thought we had a pretty good handle on it. So, jump in for a great trip from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the internet!
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on July 1, 2014
Set the male-centered title aside, and journey through America through the elements to gain an indelible portrait of how this country came to be (physically and emotionally) joined together. I nearly always come away from a Simon Winchester text with perhaps more trivia than I need, but with a lasting understanding as to how a map was made, a volcano erupted, a dictionary was created, the earth formed (or continues to form and change), and to how recently the United States of America was a close knit group living on the east of the Allegheny mountain range.
Winchester somehow brings the past closer to the present than it was before. The reader feels a part of the mistakes and discoveries that got us where we are. We can empathize with those who are trying to form a more perfect union, often failing because of the imperfections in them and in ourselves.
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One of the delights of reading this book is that you get a sense of looking over the author's shoulder as he discovers the stories behind the places he explores. He looks at this incredibly complex interwoven complex of people and ideas and movements that have shaped a nation and finds a means of labeling the threads and spinning the similar fibers into a whole where in fact the disparate elements can still be discerned in the pattern of the resulting fabric. So from the Hudson valley to Silicon valley, this is the story of America, and increasingly the story of the planet. Whether we follow a pioneer trail traced in mud ruts hardened nearly to stone, or the fiber optic cables the carry modern communication, we find our way to a the story of a people.
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on December 17, 2013
I should have looked more closely at this one before I hit the “buy” button. I could not finish the book. Take that into account when reading this review, but I had my reasons:

First, Simon’s style is so plummy, preachy, and didactic that it sets my teeth on edge. I could not read more than three pages at a clip. And I am unable to shake an impression that Mr. Simon is, well -- a politically-correct prig.

Among the one-star reviews on this page, there is one criticizing Simon for the book’s title. Not the content, the title. The ‘reviewer’ (who would admit to reading no more than the title) was near-mortally offended that it did not read “The Men AND WOMEN Who United the States.” I read that, rolled my eyes at this skin-superficial scolding and passed on --

-- and read in Simon’s Introduction exactly the same (self-) censure! Simon must be a hoot at self-criticism sessions.

Second, the book is crippled by a too-rigid adherence to an unsuitable format. Simon frames his history of continent-uniting technologies by reference to the Four Elements. Except that it’s the Five Elements. And they start with Wood. I think I would have reconsidered my format right there. Simon did not. It does not work.

Third, given my career (I work for an airline), I assumed that the chapter riffing off “Air” (was “Air” even on the list?) might have had something to say about the building of the American air transport system. I should not have assumed.

Air travel is addressed twice in the book. First, Mr. Simon reminisces about seeing the skies empty of airplanes on the morning of 11 Sept. 2001. (I feel he somewhat misrepresents how that was done but whatever.)

And there is a short section about Cal Rodgers, the first man to fly from coast to coast. That was in 1911 and took nearly three months. And that’s it. Nothing about Bill Boeing or the Lockheed brothers or James Doolittle or Juan Trippe or -- This is akin to writing a history of motor transportation in America, leaving out Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler and William Durant so you can talk about Horatio Nelson Jackson. *

There is a fascinating story to be told on the subject of “The Persons Who United the States” [pace], but Mr. Simon broke it to fit in his frame and trimmed off the parts that did not fit. Maybe someone else can take a cut at it.

* The first man to drive a car across the U.S.
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