JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us.
It's really great that so many of you have signed up to take this journey today, albeit one that began over 300 years ago, when Lewis and Clark, at the bequest of President Thomas Jefferson, set off to explore and map the newly acquired territory gained from the Louisiana Purchase. Our impeccable guide, one of the most celebrated storytellers of modern times, is Simon Winchester. His book, The Men Who United the States, is a riveting narrative that includes not only this adventure, but also illuminates the lives of others who, from the very beginning, toiled fearlessly to discover, connect, and bond the citizenry and geography of America.
It's often asked why America and Americans consider their country and themselves so exceptional, so special, so different. I imagine most of us would have a difficult time listing the reasons and values why we think this is so. Even so, while I was reading about all the eclectic men showcased in Simon's new book—and they are mostly men, with a few exceptions—I kept searching for an answer.
It didn't take long to realize that, in addition to their adventurous nature, if there was a common thread to be found among these explorers, it was in a steadfast belief that if there were objectives to be met, it wasn't prudent to simply sit and wait for fate to take its course. These pathfinders were willing to take the initiative to do what had to be done.
And take the initiative they did. From the first geological surveys they prepared, to building the first transcontinental railway, they tamed the wilderness and expanded the country's infrastructure so that in the end America could function as a cohesive whole.
As an American, I think it's safe to say that our reputation for being extremely realistic, practical, and efficient, and even a bit eccentric, has served us well, especially in the past. By revisiting America's remarkable history, especially through the lens of this talented historian, who himself recently became an American citizen, I believe you will gain a renewed appreciation for why it is in the nature of Americans to believe they are exceptional, unusual, and even a bit more eccentric than others.
Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Simon Winchester.
It is so nice to have you back with us again.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you, Joanne. That was just lovely.
I've really been in love with the United States since I first came here as a hitchhiker in 1962, so that's more than half-a-century ago. I had a girlfriend in Montreal. We are still friends. She's now professor of radiology at the University of Michigan. In the kind of puppy love way one has—I was 17, she was 16—I took a job in London, working, oddly enough, in a mortuary for £11 a week and 4 shillings a body bonus, so I quickly amassed enough money to come across the Atlantic to see her.
Then, realizing that I had about a year on my hands before I went up to university, I decided to hitchhike, first across to Vancouver, and then entered the United States at Blaine, Washington, and spent eight months there. If I had time, I could tell you some extraordinary adventures I had. I met Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and Johnny Carson and President Kennedy at the opening of a lock at Sault St. Marie—a lock that, of course, is important in Canadian economics.
But the remarkable thing about it, I think, was that I entered at Blaine with 200 crisp American dollar bills in my pocket, and when I left eight months later from Houlton, Maine—I entered the United States in Blaine and I left from Houlton in Maine—I had 182 of them left. It cost $18 because Americans were so supremely generous and kind and warm and wonderful. I don't know what would happen if you hitchhiked today. It might be a somewhat different experience.
But anyway, I had this abiding—and if anything really annealed my love for this country, it was about a decade later. I did a variety of things. I took a degree in geology, went off to Africa; then became a journalist, went to Northern Ireland for a while, and essentially after surviving that, The Guardian sent me to cover Washington during Watergate, and then back again in the late 1970s. That was back in the time when British magazine editors spent money like drunken sailors; almost any outlandish proposal, if it seemed sufficiently realistic, they would go for it, no matter what it cost.
One day—I don't know if any of you remember seeing a film called Paris, Texas. I was looking for the location of Paris, Texas, in an atlas and noticed, just by chance, that there were a great slew of places in America that all—beginning with the letters P-A—were called Paradise. I thought, "How fascinating! Why are towns called Paradise? Are they still the paradise that their original settlers thought them to be?"
So I rang up some gullible magazine editor in London and said, "Would you mind if I spent a few months going to all the towns in America called Paradise?"
He said, "Not at all. Off you go."
The first one I remember was Paradise, Florida, which was a retirement community, more a gateway to paradise than paradise itself. [Laughter] And there was Paradise, Pennsylvania, which was next-door to Intercourse, which of course excited everybody. [Laughter] Then Paradise, Arkansas; Paradise, Montana. But all of them had been ruined by one or another aspect of modern American society, except one, and that was Paradise, Kansas, very near Salina, very close, therefore, to the geographical center of the United States.
I went to the postmaster, as I always did, to say: "Hello. I'm an English journalist. I'm writing about American towns called Paradise."
The woman postmaster, despite being a lady, said, "Well, in that case you must go and see, and probably stay with, the patriarchs of Paradise, John and Mary Angel." [Laughter] Believe you me, I tell the truth. I'm a British journalist, after all.
I went and stayed with John and Mary Angel. They had a cherry tree at the end of the garden, and yes, indeed she picked the cherries and baked me a pie. So the moment when I ate the cherry pie baked by the Angels in Paradise I felt this was a country that I wanted to live in and love and eventually become an American.
I did on Independence Day two years ago. I took my oath on the afterdeck of the USS Constitution, which, as you may know, is the oldest commissioned floating warship in the world. We have HMS Victory, but it floats in cement. But the one in Boston goes out for a trundle around Boston Harbor every so often.
I was sworn in by a judge who I actually have become very close friends with. She's called Marianne Bowler. She does all sorts of interesting things apart from swearing in new Americans. She is the judge in charge of the Boston Marathon bombing case at the moment. So she is a very busy and important and very interesting woman.
I thought once I become a citizen that I would like to write a book about America. This is my second chance, because I had written a book [American Heartbeat: Notes from a Midwestern Journey] in 1976, when I was The Guardian correspondent, on the first iteration of that journey of my career and had had this sort of naïve idea—I was in Chicago and Milwaukee and St. Louis last week, and I didn't use the word "naïve"—in saying that I had been persuaded that the essence of America—the quiddity of this country—could be found in the Midwest. Of course, in Chicago, you say, "Obviously, that's the place I chose to write about the country, not the effete East Coast or the West Coast."
I spent six months driving up and down and up and down Interstate Highway 35, which goes from International Falls, Minnesota, to Laredo, Texas, and produced a book that was timed to come out for the American Bicentennial. It was critically generously received. But when I got the royalty statement in 1977—royalty is a bit of an exaggeration—it had only sold 12 copies. [Laughter]
So deciding after my citizenship in 2011 to write again was really my second chance. So I look upon this book as it had to be many things, but one thing it did not have to be was anything like the book that I had written back in 1976.
So I came up with all sorts of schemes, ways of writing the book. When you do this, you have, as you probably know, got to write a substantial proposal, so you don't just toss out an idea. I came up with a variety of ideas.
One would simply be a love story, a hymn to this country. But the editor thought that wasn't a very good idea.
Then I came up with the idea that it was technically possible to cross this entire country on Class 3 railways, where you can go from Eastport in Maine to a little railroad stop in far northern California. But that would have taken tons of permissions and it would have taken an immensely long time and, as my editor said, would really be a book more about railways than about America.
Then I came up with an even more outlandish scheme. There was a very successful book series in Britain, called Anatomy of Britain, written by a chap called Tony Sampson. I thought "the anatomy of America," but I would model it on Gray's Anatomy, not the television program but the book. So I got an 1856 copy of it and saw how it was structured, and I thought it would work. You know, the universities are the brains and the communication system would be the nerve pathways, and the highways would be the arteries. The editor thought that was a completely nonsensical idea.
Then I was just looking one day at the name of the country, the United States of America, and I was suddenly gripped with this idea of united—I mean how has this managed to have been both achieved and sustained—apart from the unpleasantness of course in the 1860s—in such a complex, polyglot country that America is. Canada has had difficulties with remaining united, simply because of the enormous Francophone bloc in the center of the country. Russia, clearly not united. Europe, where I'm from, we in Britain don't use the euro, Switzerland is not part of it; you try and plug in your shaver in Madrid, you'll need a different plug from the one you'll use in Stockholm; they're all yapping at each other in different languages.
But America, despite its citizens coming from all corners of the planet and being of every imaginable color and creed and persuasion, has remained united. A Sephardic or Ashkenazy Jew in New York, a Latina storekeeper in Albuquerque, an Algonquin Indian in Maine, a fisherman in Oregon—can all feel some sort of mystical unity with each other. How has that been achieved?
Well, there are abstract things that obviously unite this country: the language, a common belief in human rights, and so on and so forth. But it is much easier if the country is all one, like all Norwegians are essentially the same; all Japanese, where my wife is from—there's a natural feeling of unity. But to achieve that in this country required something more.
I started to think that it was the deliberate agency of man that did this. There were certain acts, certain discoveries, inventions, beliefs. Let's make a list of these people who I thought helped in some major way to bring unity and sustain unity, create things that sustain unity. So I came up with a long list.
I remember one evening I was talking to my wife about it.
She said, "What are you doing?"
I said, "I'm making this list of people who link this country together."
She said, in a heartbeat, "Oh, you're making a list of the men who united the states."
I said, "Darling, you have given me the title. That's brilliant, the men who united the states."
I instantly went to Amazon and Alibris and all these other outfits. The title had never been used. It's such an obvious title, but it never has been used.
Once armed with a title, then that focuses your ideas and makes it that much easier. So I had this list and I had this idea.
I have always believed—I taught a little bit about creative nonfiction writing—that there are three key elements in the writing of such a book.
The first, the absolute king, is the idea. Good writing, that helps hugely. But it's not the second most important thing.
The second most important thing is the structure, because you can write lyrically about a wonderful idea, but if your structure is appalling, people will fall asleep, the book won't work. So what structure could I give to these chaps? They are all chaps I have to say, nearly all men. There's only one woman in the story, and that's Sacagawea, the Indian guide in the Lewis and Clark expedition.
I could arrange them all alphabetically—that would be tedious in the extreme. I could put them all chronologically—it would look like an encyclopedia.
Then I was writing a letter to a friend of mine in Shanghai one day, because I had lived in China for a long time. We were talking about something that was about the Chinese system of classical elements. I realized—I had also lived in India for a long time—that every country essentially, from India eastwards, has at the core of its philosophy the use of usually five, sometimes four—and they're not always the same, but essentially they are the same—five classical elements. Those elements are: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. It suddenly occurred to me, in one of those sort of Damascene moments, that you could corral all these people that I had listed into a structure involving these five elements. And moreover, the five elements would, more or less, have a chronological order to them as well. Let me just very briefly sketch it.
When Lewis and Clark set out, that expedition that sent out by Thomas Jefferson. Right from the moment of the beginning—it's important—Jefferson was obsessed with trees. You've only got to go to Monticello to see what he planted—I mean these enormous catalpa trees and gingkoes that he planted. He was obsessed with them, looking through them to the wooded Blue Ridge Mountains, over which he sent Lewis and Clark—he had never been across them; he had been to Paris, but he had never been to west of the Blue Ridge.
When Lewis, and then Clark, who joined him six weeks later, went to the beginning of the expedition, which was just north of St. Louis, they had to go through 1,000 miles of essentially virgin Eastern forest. They paddled in wooden canoes. They build wooden stockades. They built log fires. Wood dominated the world of the early American explorers. So that seemed relatively neat and tidy.
Once the country's extent had been known, once we knew where the Rockies and the Sierras and the Pacific Ocean were, then it was a question of finding out what the country was made of. Then that brings into the fore—and I used to be a geologist—the early geologists, who dealt with earth.
I might say, parenthetically, I wrote a book in 2001, called The Map That Changed the World, about the first ever geological map in the world, which was made in Britain by a man called William Smith in 1815. I thought that was the first geological map in the world, but doing research for this book, it actually turned out there was a much earlier one done by a Scotsman, called William Maclure, of the eastern United States. It's an absolutely beautiful map—completely inaccurate but nonetheless beautiful—and, evidently, the first in the world, which has prompted my English publishers to say that The Map That Changed the World should now be re-titled The Second Map that Changed the World. [Laughter] We'll see.
Anyway, there was Maclure, the early geologists who then discovered things—gold, diamonds, coal, farmland—in the American West, which lured out the pioneers of the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail and the Mormon Trail.
Then, Lincoln, who you might think had other things on his mind in the 1860s, also sent out four huge geological expeditions to find out what America was made of.
So earth worked well as the second chapter.
Then, water. Well, the early settlers in the coasts of the American East, to get into the interior, they generally went up rivers—the Susquehanna, the James, the Hudson. After about 60–70 miles, all of them, for geological reasons, found they were confronted by waterfalls and rapids and couldn't go any further, and so they settled there. The towns that resulted from those settlements—places like Richmond and Fredericksburg and Washington, D.C., and Albany—remain today.
They inevitably had to go beyond them for trade goods and dealing with the interior dwellers, so they built the first-ever canals. Once they got accustomed to how to build canals, then they started to bring proper big canals for trade: the first one was the Middlesex Canal, which essentially made Boston the city that it is today; what I would think is the most important of all American canals, which is the Erie Canal, from Buffalo to Albany, which made New York the center of commerce that it is today; then the Chicago canals that linked the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, the Illinois-Michigan Canal, the horribly named Chicago Sanitary Canal, which was built in 1902; and then of course the canalization and improvement in taming, if such a thing can ever been done, of the Mississippi River. So that all worked well for water.
Then fire. Well, going up canals is all fine and dandy, but you go slowly. You want to go fast across this newly discovered country. Well, this coincided with James Watt having created the steam engine. So steam-fired, or fire-powered vehicles were invented: the railway train and then the Transcontinental Railroad; the motor car and the building ultimately of the interstate highway system; the airplane, the first ever flight across America. So all of that worked well for fire.
Then, finally, metal—the metal wire of the telegraph, the distribution of electricity, the telephone, television, radio, and the Internet.
So you can see these five categories given to us by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, allowed me to look at America through a prism.
Now, I remember early on my editors cautioned me that some Americans might find it offensive to be viewed through the prism of an ancient Chinese culture. Thus far I'm happy to say—we're only a week in; the publication was last Tuesday—such reviews as there have been, most notably The Wall Street Journal, have been very kind. I hope you don't think this is too glib to say so—but I think I might have gotten away with it. I hope so anyway. I'm hoping that this structure works.
What I would like to do is to pluck from this—it's sort of a big pudding of a book in a way; there are lots of people and places and facts—two or three that will illustrate the kind of thing that I found out by doing it, and finding out things that I had never heard of before, and, to judge from audiences I have spoken to in other cities recently, nor have they, but places and people that are hugely important but are long forgotten.
I need to ask one question of you. Who here has been to East Liverpool, Ohio? [No response]
I'm ashamed of you all. It is hugely, hugely important but totally forgotten. In the Boston Athenaeum last week, two people had been. In a bookstore in St. Louis, one person had been.
One of the most important laws of the early United States, a profoundly important law, was the Land Ordinance of 1785, backed by Thomas Jefferson, who had this deep-seated belief that Americans ought to be able to own the land that they were settling on. In Britain up to that point, the old Anglo-Saxon tradition was that it was the king, the aristocracy, the church that owned the land, that ordinary people were merely tenants. But Jefferson said everything could be different—and this goes into the whole view of American exceptionalism—if ordinary Americans could be allowed to buy and own land, and buy it for nominal amounts of money. So the 1785 Ordinance was passed and this was the deal.
But in order to own land, you've got to know where the land is, you've got to parcel it out, you've got to create sections, townships, ranches. Whenever you fly across this country, you look, once you get west of the Mississippi particularly, those straight lines—I don't know if you've looked out of the window and counted them—if you know they're a mile apart and how fast the plane is going, it's easy to calculate. That system extends from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Arizona—it's everywhere, all these straight north and south lines.
Well, those north and south lines had to begin somewhere. The place they begin is in East Liverpool, Ohio, which is a forlorn, broken-down town. Most of you, I dare say, have got products of East Liverpool because it used to be the crockery capital of America. Most plates and cups and saucers in America were made there. Now it's forlorn. There's only one pottery-making kiln there. If pottery rusted, it would be part of the Rust Belt. It is a forlorn former industrial city.
But if you drive into Pennsylvania from it—and it's on the Ohio River at the junction of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and a little sliver of West Virginia—beside the road, covered with litter, completely disregarded, is an obelisk. That obelisk is known as the Point of Beginning. It's where the first—and indeed only—American geographer, a man called Thomas Hutchins, appointed by Jefferson, started the first surveys of the land west of the Ohio River.
It strikes me that the Point of Beginning, which is covered with graffiti, there's litter—it's just by an industrial warehouse for fracking material—it deserves to have a visitors center, an interpretative center, parking for buses. Every child in eastern America should be taken there, because the Point of Beginning of this country says something hugely important about the construction, and indeed later unification, of this country.
I want to talk briefly about one of the early geologists. I mentioned that Lincoln sent four enormous surveys across the country. The leaders were: Wheeler, not a terribly interesting man; John Wesley Powell, who despite only having one arm, navigated down, mapped, and discovered the Grand Canyon; Hayden, who did the same thing—although he had two arms—to Yellowstone. Both men, I would say parenthetically, should be or would have been spinning in their graves last week if they knew that the national parks that they had essentially founded were closed because of some trivial dispute—to me trivial dispute—in Washington.
But the man I want to talk about briefly is Clarence King, who was the fourth of these great surveyors. He was a young Newport, Rhode Island, WASP. He came from a very aristocratic family, went to Yale, Ph.D. at Harvard, geologist, diminutive, friend of John Hay, friend of Henry Adams, very well-connected in American society, and a very, very good geologist.
He was put in charge of what was called the 40th Parallel Survey, to survey all the land between Sacramento in the west in Cheyenne in the center of the country, 1,000 miles and 100 miles north and south. It took him seven years to do it. Impeccable maps. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if you want to get the full report of the 40th Parallel Expedition. As a reward for doing that so well, he was made the first ever director of the United States Geological Survey, a body that still exists today.
However, he had a peculiar personal life. I trust no one will be offended, but he was sexually very energetic, but he didn't like white women. He loved Native American women and he loved black women.
There came an event when he was well on in years. He was walking through Riverside Park in New York. He saw walking towards him a black woman. For him it was a sort of coup de foudre (love at first sight). He saw her and he said, "This is the woman of my dreams." But, instead of going up to her and saying, "Good evening, Madame. My name is Clarence King. I'm director of the United States Geological Survey. Will you have dinner with me?" he's thinking too fast on his feet. He made a remark that turned his whole life topsy-turvy. He said, "Good evening, Madame. My name is James Todd"—where he got that name from I don't know—"I may look white, but I am in fact black, and I'm a porter with the Pullman Railway Company. Will you have dinner with me?"
They fell in love, they married, and they had five children, two of whom, mysteriously to Ada—her name was Ada Copeland—to Mrs. Todd turned out to be as white as the driven snow.
He then developed a life where neither side knew anything about the other. He never told. For all of the rest of his life, 20 more years, he would spend his time with Ada Todd and the children in Queens, New York, and then would say to her, "Well, darling, I've got to go and catch the Twentieth Century Limited and take the train over to the West Coast. See you in two weeks." And he'd walk over the newly built Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to the offices of the U.S. Geological Survey and say, "Well, that was a complicated field trip. I'll be here for two weeks writing up my notes." He wrote up his notes, two weeks later walked back across the Brooklyn Bridge, became Mr. Todd.
Twenty years it went on. It drove him completely potty [crazy], as you might imagine. He was once arrested for assaulting someone outside the lion cage in the Central Park Zoo. He had to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars from his friend John Hay, the U.S. secretary of state at the time.
But he never let on to anybody, not until he was on his deathbed in Albuquerque—he was struck down by tuberculosis—when he said to his doctor, "I think I ought to come clean. My name is Clarence King. You know that. But over in Queens there's someone who thinks she's Mrs. Todd, but she's not. She's Mrs. King. She should be told and she should be explained to why two of her children are white." So the word went out. But he then died.
Playing into this book, ironically, the doctor—and I've seen the death certificate—when he was writing out the race of the deceased, he scored out the word "black" and he scored out the word "white" and in handwriting wrote simply the word "American." It seemed to me to sum it all up.
I want to do one final thing. I want to tell you about rural electrification.
One thing I will tell you about rural electrification, which fascinates me, is bringing electricity to the farms of America required the agency of the U.S. government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up the REA, the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electricity from the big power stations in the cities to the 800,000 farms that were completely overlooked. It is an interesting irony, I think, that the first-ever farms to be connected as a result of the work of big government in this country were in western Ohio, in a place called Miami, Ohio, which is the district today represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by John Boehner. So the archetype of anti-big government, his constituency hugely benefited from the biggest big government this country has ever known.
The final thing I want to say involves playing a small item from my iPhone.
Radio has always seemed to me to be a huge unifying feature of this country. The image of the family in the 1930s and 1940s gathered around the walnut-paneled radio set—mother, father, children, dog, cat—listening to a comedy program beamed in from New York or a music program from Los Angeles, or whatever, seems both to indicate the uniting of the country in a cultural sense, but also the uniting of a family. It is all changed now. Thanks to the Internet and cable TV, we're all doing other things in other rooms of our houses. But there was this golden period.
Now, we all know about the invention of radio and the fact that Marconi is sitting up there on the headland at Signal Hill in Newfoundland listening through the storm—he had an aerial up on a kite—listening through the interference for the Morse code that was being tapped out by his colleagues over in Cornwall, 2,000 miles away. Then, suddenly, this marvelous moment when he heard it through the crackle and everything, faintly, and realized that radio could be transmitted across oceans.
But no conversation is going to be conducted in any sort of intimate way through Morse code. The important thing is that the human voice has to be transmitted by radio. That comes down to a very obscure man, named Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, a Canadian who came from Nova Scotia, worked for the American National Weather Bureau, and worked out how to—you will be familiar with the initials AM and FM, amplitude modulation, frequency modulation, which allows stuff other than Morse to be transmitted by radio. You no longer just had to put a tapper; you can put anything to a microphone, and whatever the microphone picks up it will pick up.
He built a big aerial in a place called Brant Rock, Massachusetts, and transmitted test signals to an aerial over in Argyle, in northwest Scotland.
But then came the moment where he was going to change everything by transmitting something that wasn't Morse over the airways. He sent a signal, on about the 23rd of December, 1906, to all the ships in the western Atlantic of the United Fruit Company, who were bringing bananas up from countries like Honduras and El Salvador up to the East Coast ports of Boston and Baltimore and New York: "Listen at one minute to midnight on Christmas Eve 1906."
As it happened, that night was a dark and stormy night. There was a furious snowstorm off Cape Cod. If you could imagine these radio operators in a rocking, wallowing ship, going down somewhat reluctantly to their radio shacks, putting on their earphones and listening. There was static and there was the other Morse chatter of other ships. But then they heard a transmitter warm up, and instead of hearing Morse, they heard this. [Plays recording.] That's Emmi Leisner singing "Ombr mai fu." Nothing to do with America; it's all about Persia and Handel's Serse.
It caught on. Within two weeks, a radio station had opened above a musical instrument shop, which still exists in Pasadena. A few months later, the first ever real radio station, WHA in Madison, Wisconsin, opened up. With that the national unifying conversation began.
Thank you very much indeed.
QUESTION: Thank you. William Verdone.
In light of the wonderful trivial things that you gave us, I offer you one. Sacagawea's image is on the door of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
SIMON WINCHESTER: That's great. Can I, as a rejoinder to that, say none of us of course knows what Sacagawea looks like. The definitive portrait of Sacagawea is on the $1 coin. The model for that is an inspirational teacher called Randy'L He-dow Teton, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. So she is the real, according to the United States Treasury, Sacagawea. She is 20 [at the time she modeled for the coin], she is gorgeous, and we have no idea if she is at all similar to Sacagawea. I'll go with the image on St. Patrick's.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
Mr. Winchester, that was so fascinating. But, you know, when I'm with someone from Chicago or Ohio, I always try to empathize with the Midwestern point of view, that you're there in the center of the country and the land means so much. But you happen to be in New York. We are the number one city in this country, and possibly in the world. So there are so many other factors, such as, you mentioned the media, and finance, and a willingness to bring the immigrant from abroad and to Americanize them, and so forth.
So what do you think of that as America, as New York uniting America?
SIMON WINCHESTER: I couldn't agree with you more. I live here. I love this city. But I want to be fair to the rest of the country. I mean it is not—these people that deride the Midwest as being flyover country—I used to own land in Montana. I wrote a book—it didn't happen to catch on very well—about the American Midwest. I am profoundly fascinated by the Midwest. I have no disrespect for it. I have great affection for it.
But I would never, never dispute what you have just said. You are absolutely right. This is the greatest of all cities, I think, on the planet—well, apart from all the ones in New Zealand and Canada.
QUESTION: David Musher.
I wondered whether you might comment about the role of war. Certainly, World War I and World War II have been mentioned as unifying factors. Other more recent wars have been mentioned as being divisive factors.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Very good. Of course, the most infamous domestic war was fought for purely divisive reasons. I touch on war, I touch on crisis, as a unifying feature.
When talking specifically—and I don't want to get too technical here—about when radio was set up in the 1920s, Herbert Hoover, when he was secretary of commerce, said, "American radio, unlike British radio, must be based on commerce, it must be an extension of the commercial life of this country." It took a long time, until the late 1960s/early 1970s, before public radio, educational radio, became NPR [National Public Radio] that we know today.
I was thinking as I was writing whether NPR is unifying, in that it is a network much more than any other radio network—most radio stations are little local things these days—whether it serves to unify this country. I came to conclusion that, because of the way that NPR was set up, it doesn't unify in the way that BBC is a unifying feature in Britain, the CBC in Canada, the ABC in Australia, except in moments of crisis. So if we go to war, if the Twin Towers come down on 9/11, if there is a shutdown of the government, everyone then turns to intelligent radio and for a brief—often dismaying rather than shining—moment radio becomes a unifying feature because of transmitting the details of a national crisis.
So I think you are absolutely right. But the way I looked at it was not so much whether war itself brings a country together—I think it does, but it doesn't always, and that's the problem—I mean look at Afghanistan—but the reporting of it does. So in one sense it is a unifying feature, but in another it's not.
It's a very interesting question, though.
QUESTION: Mike Koenig, Long Island University.
Just a quick question on Webster's Dictionary and the fact that, no matter whether you were in Alabama or California, you got the Connecticut Yale pronunciation of it. How much of a unifying factor was that?
SIMON WINCHESTER: That's very close to my heart, because there is this remarkable dictionary that has just been completed in Madison, Wisconsin, after 60 years, called The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which illustrates impeccably that, despite us all speaking or listening to American-received pronunciation, the standard pronunciation of Connecticut and Massachusetts, the variations in language, in dialect, in word use, and in accent in this country are phenomenal. This is a six-volume dictionary, which shows how the vocabulary of this country varies hugely from state to state and within a state too.
This is simply part of the polyglot, mongrel amalgam that is America, which so fascinates me. But it is entirely true that once you get off the freeways and go beyond the Walmarts and the Walgreens, America is a much more multi-colored patchwork of a country than most of us think.
QUESTION: James Starkman.
What do you think is the journalistic story of the current day? Is it the rise of China or something else?
SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, the next book I'm doing, which I'm working on now, is about the Pacific. So in a sense, the rise of China has to be the story. But it's very sort of inchoate, not terribly easy to define.
The way I'm deciding, I think, to write this book—and maybe, if Joanne invites me, I'll explain it in two or three years' time—is the Pacific was named by Magellan Pacific because it seemed to be peaceful. Of course it's anything but.
The underlying theme of this book is going to be explosions. I am going to begin the book on the 31st of March 1954, which was the date of the explosion on Bikini Atoll of the largest-ever nuclear weapon detonated by the United States. The Russians had a bigger one about 10 years later, of course. But explosions of one sort of another—explosive situations: between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands; between North and South Korea; physical explosions—all the volcanoes that surround and cause great tragedy, the earthquakes in Japan recently and throughout Japan's existence, and in northwest America and in Latin America and in New Zealand; explosive growth in population; explosive growth in economies.
So I think—maybe I'm being very self-serving about the book I'm going to write—the new Pacific is the great philosophical world history-changing story of the next few years. I hope it remains that way in three years' time and then Joanne will invite me back.
SIMON WINCHESTER: The idea is I am trying to persuade HarperCollins to ultimately do them as a trilogy. So Atlantic, the middle bit, and the Pacific.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
Most of us, I think, in this room, as did I, grew up with radio. I didn't see television until I was about nine years old. So we remember it as a unifying force, listening to all the programs you thought of. Maybe we're a little too young to have heard Churchill on a wireless, but we remember all that stuff with nostalgia. So when you talk about radio as a unifying force, we know what you are talking about. When you talk about radio as a unifying force to someone who is 30 years younger, what they think of is an opportunity to converse with like-minded people, of whom there aren't very many others in the world. And when you go ahead to the Internet, that's even more the case.
So have you had any thoughts about how these instruments of unity are now becoming instruments of division?
SIMON WINCHESTER: I think it's a wonderful question. The answer is yes. I think the last 20 pages of this book are devoted to precisely that.
I think the rot, if we can call it that, of when electronics started to divide us instead of unite us began in West Virginia in the late 1970s or 1980, when a very clever man with a lot of coaxial cable decided to distribute television by cable rather than broadcast to the remote hollers of West Virginia. He was the inventor of the idea of cable television.
Once cable television really took off, then the unified television audience—you know, Johnny Carson and Milton Berle and all these people that entertained America as a whole—started to divide into people that watched ESPN, people that watched MTV, people that watched CNN. So that was the beginning of electronic media being a dividing, rather than a uniting, feature.
The same thing, of course, is happening with the Internet. The Internet is touted as something that brings the world together. But I think we all know socially that it does precisely the reverse.
The sad situation—I don't mean to pick on Japan here, but there is this archetype of these young children, 17- and 18-year-olds, who sit in dark rooms and will not go out.This happens, and it is a phenomenon which is spreading, communicating only over the Internet with a small corps d'elite (elite group) of like-minded people, and just not sitting in the sunshine with their families and dogs and enjoying the communion of family. So it is a worrying affair.
Let me just say, parenthetically, I live in a little village, principally, in western Massachusetts, a tiny little village called Sandisfield, which is quite old by American standards—it was 250 years old last year. The geography—it's got three rivers that cross through it—has kept it divided into three or four little sub-villages. The roads are very bad. There has never been a railway. The telephone system was only installed in the 1930s. So it has been a community without a sense of community.
But my wife and I—now I'm writing the fifth year appeal today as it happens—created a newspaper, called The Sandisfield Times. It has changed everything. It's a free monthly newspaper. It's such a success. Everybody in the town reads it.
The proof of the pudding is that we, like many New England communities, govern ourselves through the principle of the town meeting. Everyone gathers and votes on aspects of the budget. Before the newspaper came along, maybe 10 people would go to a town meeting. Nowadays the town meetings are full. They drive or walk or snowshoe in winter to the town meeting. A hundred-and-fifty people turn up. There is argument.
Democracy has been rekindled in a wonderfully unifying way by virtue, not of the Internet, not of cable television, not of television, not of radio, but by an old-fashioned newspaper. So even though newspapers are dying all over the country we're told, the big ones, the concept of the very, very local newspaper is alive and well, at least where we live.
JOANNE MYERS: I have one final question. If you could identify one common thread—or maybe you can't—that all these explorers and pioneers had in common, what would that be?
SIMON WINCHESTER: They are nearly all forgotten. That's the sad thing. [Laughter]
Who here has heard of Thomas McDonald, the man who invented the interstate highway system? A hugely important man; ran the American Bureau of Roads for half-a-century; from Montezuma, Iowa; died in a restaurant in Houston in 1975. Fascinating guy. Totally forgotten.
JOANNE MYERS: Well then, on behalf of all those forgotten men, I have to thank you for bringing them back to us. Thank you very much.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you.