In his latest book, Simon Winchester displays his considerable dexterity as a storyteller by creating a unique — if at times slightly forced — hook on which to hang an enthralling narrative. Rather than taking a straightforward, chronological approach to civics and nation-building, he structures The Men Who United the States around the five classical elements — wood, earth, water, fire and metal — essentially telling the tales of physiology, physics and technological derring-do that bind the United States as a nation.
This scientific underpinning should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Winchester’s considerable back catalog, including the bestselling The Professor and the Madm an and Krakatoa. While he has spent the better part of four decades as a globe-trotting nonfiction author and journalist, Winchester is an Oxford-educated geologist.
The Men Who United the States unfurls as a tale of discovery and acceleration, propulsion and progress as wave after wave of new arrivals set out for new frontiers. It is a story of rugged individuals and eccentric inventors, visionary business magnates and single-minded bureaucrats toiling to physically — and psychically — connect the various parts of this diverse land. Even if this connectivity wasn’t the original intention, by the second half of the 20th century, it became the de facto result as postal roads gave way to commercial cartpaths, which give way to canals, which give way to riverboats and railways and eventually the revolutionary interstate highway system and the Internet.
Some of the figures Winchester mentions — Thomas Jefferson’s politically connected Western explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; steamship magnate Robert Fulton and telegraph creator Samuel Morse — are well-known. But the narrative soars when Winchester emphasizes the contributions of long-forgotten hunters, cartographers and engineers whose achievements have been marginalized by the onslaught of history.
Winchester, well-documented map geek, waxes rhapsodic over Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States, and marvels at the immense contributions to cartography and Civil War history by Governeur Warren. He purposely focuses on Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the first man to fly an airplane across the country, instead of Charles Lindbergh.
While former President Dwight Eisenhower often receives the bulk of the credit for the revolutionary interstate highway system, Winchester focuses on the man who really made it happen, the “curmudgeonly martinet’’ Thomas MacDonald, who led the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953.
The British-born Winchester became a naturalized American in 2011. Part of the charm of this original tale is the way in which he intersperses his personal treks around the country throughout the historical narrative. Winchester retraces the path of the U.S. Army’s 1919 Transcontinental Convoy using Eisenhower’s diary, which would later give rise to the future president’s commitment to building the interstates.
The description of a nail-biting drive across the Donner Pass in a blinding snowstorm is riveting reading with a purpose. As Winchester navigates the awe-inspiring cut in the Sierras toward California, he spots a Union Pacific freight train calmly crossing the same treacherous terrain, a testament to the vision of a slightly mad railway engineer named Theodore Judah, who promoted the first transcontinental railway but died before he could see it completed.
This is exactly the sort of work one has come to expect from latter-period Winchester: An impeccably researched, erudite, well-told tale, peppered with occasional grace notes. The Men Who United the States also provides a new perspective on what physically binds us together at a time when the Republic appears to be fraying at the fragile seams.
Larry Lebowitz is a writer in Miami.