Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dennis Merrill

Dennis Merrill was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, received a doctorate in history from the University of Connecticut, and currently teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is the author of four books, including most recently Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth Century Latin America (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) and the seventh edition of Major Problems in American Foreign Relations (Wadsworth/Cengage, 2010).

A week or so ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Browsing the shelves of a Boulder, Colorado bookstore this summer, I was pleased to come across Greg Grandin’s new book Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. Grandin is one of our most gifted historians of America’s hemispheric empire – and Fordlandia is his finest work to date. It reconstructs Henry Ford’s doomed adventure deep within the Brazilian Amazon in the late 1920s to build a utopian urban metropolis. Ford imagined a community that some 100,000 souls might call home and where massive quantities of rubber would be cultivated and processed with factory-like efficiency. The undertaking at one and the same time would feed the Ford Automobile Company’s appetite for tires, undercut British Malaya’s monopoly on rubber, and export the American way of life – complete with tidy row houses, the latest in plumbing fixtures, and the prohibition of demon rum (this was after all the roaring twenties).

Fordlandia, as the industrial paradise was named, proved to be a short-lived experiment and Grandin spices his narrative with dashes of Joseph Conrad, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Diego Rivera, and Mark Twain. Publicly at odds with the cult of the expert, Ford initially relied on a series of Jack-of-all-Trades to manage the enterprise – men who when set adrift from mid-America proved either corrupt or incompetent. Brazil’s federal and state officials extracted an array of under the table bribes and over the table taxes from the upstart company. Brazilian workers and the Brazilian eco-system alike suffered when inexperienced bosses slashed and burned thousands of acres of rainforest during the rainy season – poisoning the air with smoke and ash, unleashing malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and “forcing tapirs, boars, cougars, boas, pit vipers, and other animals into the open ‘crying, screaming, or bellowing with terror.’” Housed in substandard accommodations, fed a diet of rancid food, and never realizing anything that even approached the five dollar day that had raised Dearborn, Michigan to fame, some of Fordlandia’s local workers rioted, others took flight, and almost all ignored the municipal ban on booze and brothels. Then South American leaf blight and insects ravaged the rubber plants, and the 1930s populist President GetĂșlio Vargas mandated the recognition of labor unions – anathema to the Ford Motor Company’s way of thinking. The Arcadian moment passed.

In the beginning, of course, there was the incessantly preachy Henry Ford – part Ben Franklin and part Rush Limbaugh. A pacifist who turned his plants over to wartime production, a pastoralist who had no use for cows, and an eternal optimist whose anti-Semitism provided scapegoats when the going got tough, Ford embodied the contradictions of the modern age. So, in addition to delivering a riveting story line, Grandin’s book is a meditation on modernity: its predatory global capitalism and its troubled coexistence with a fragile yet unforgiving natural environment. Even more, it is a critique of what Grandin references as a “trait endemic to Americans: a blithe insistence that all the world is more or less like us, or at least an imagined version of ‘us.’”

Perhaps the bottom line on this engrossing read is this: At a time when the economic and social consequences of globalization grow more uneven, the specter of climate change haunts our future, and U.S. troops occupy not one but two far-away countries, Fordlandia is a timely reminder that the past is indeed prologue.
Visit Dennis Merrill's faculty webpage, and read more about his new book, Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth Century Latin America.

--Marshal Zeringue