Monday, January 10, 2011

Darren Dochuk

Darren Dochuk is a professor at Purdue University and a former Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

His new book is From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I always look forward to Christmas break because it allows me to cut loose from the “publish-or-perish” pressures of academia and indulge in some book reading for pleasure. Granted, the pleasure is never guilt-free; there always seems to be another article or tome to read in preparation for next semester’s work. This year, however, I’ve been able to minimize the guilt by reading two books that touch on my scholarly interests at the same time they tell riveting tales. Both are highly acclaimed and likely familiar to HEPPAS readers, but they have provided me with hours of fresh insight and enjoyment. My pairing of the two was unplanned yet auspicious: while one book features a man obsessed with discovery in South America’s densest jungle, the other profiles a man set on subduing this tangled terrain; while the first takes the reader from the Victorian era to the 1920s, the other moves from the 1920s to World War II. Together they open up the fascinating world of Amazonia, where, in the early twentieth century, so many interlopers saw their lofty dreams collide with nature in violent and tragic fashion.

I picked up David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon first and immediately found myself immersed in three parallel universes: first, that of Percy Fawcett, the British explorer whose 1925 quest for an ancient Amazonian civilization (the city of Z) and subsequent disappearance captured world attention, secondly, that of countless journeymen who tried to find out how, where, and why the explorer vanished, and thirdly, that of Grann himself, an author-turned-reluctant-adventurer determined to piece the entire puzzle together. The first and third storylines drive the book’s fast-paced narrative. Fawcett’s account has been told elsewhere as a window onto the turbulent soul of Victorian Britain and an entry into the modern mania of global exploration, but in Grann’s hands the account becomes a psychological thriller about one man’s inability to curtail his curiosities for the unknown. Wanting to escape personal demons rooted in his family’s past, Fawcett sets off to map some of the most remote parts of the world, and on most occasions he succeeds in his quest, thereby solidifying his reputation as the world’s greatest path-breaker. Fawcett’s last campaign into the Amazon, however, goes awry. Wanting to explain why, Grann marshals evidence from a host of sources (including one of Fawcett’s long lost diaries) in order to account for the explorer’s final days. Along the way he provides thick and rich description of the extreme dangers that led to Fawcett’s demise. But Grann does not stop there. Unsatisfied with secondary accounts, he beats his own path into the Amazon jungle. A self-avowed risk-avoider, Grann fights demons of his own while tracking Fawcett to his last known destination. Though hard-fast answers to his mystery are hard to come by, Grann’s blow-by-blow account of his own difficult journey into the heart of darkness is sufficient explanation enough for why Fawcett probably failed.

Percy Fawcett went missing in the mid-1920s at about the same time Henry Ford entered the Amazon on his own mission. As Greg Grandin shows in Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, Ford’s mission was very different. Whereas Fawcett, the brooding Victorian Brit, found sustenance in the shadows of the Amazon, Ford, the emboldened American, set out to impose order and light on this “uncivilized” realm. He did so as an idealist who wanted to export Midwestern Puritanism to South America, and as a capitalist who wanted to produce rubber for his cars back home. These interests converged in the creation of Fordlandia, a Delaware-sized tract of land located in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. For a decade and a half, from the mid-1920s to early 1940s, this “rain forest boomtown” operated on the model of Ford’s company towns in Michigan by congregating workers (drawn from local villages) and managers (drawn from Detroit) in a place where labor, profit, moral purpose, and lifestyle were meshed into one peaceful, Main Street existence. Such was the dream, at least. Behind the pastoralism waged a “proxy fight,” one Grandin poses as such: “Ford represented vigor, dynamism, and the rushing energy that defined American capitalism” while “the Amazon embodied primal stillness, an ancient world that had so far proved unconquerable.” In truth, Ford was taken by the primal stillness too and wanted to harness it so that he could restore the pristine qualities of capitalism he feared lost in America. But the overriding narrative—and Grandin’s take-home message—is that Ford lost the fight, on all counts. By the 1940s, after years of struggle with the unconquerable environment and mounting debt, Fordlandia succumbed to its shortsightedness and was sold to the Brazillian government in a desperate cost-saving measure. More importantly, in Grandin’s estimation, Fordlandia’s higher ideals succumbed. As much as he underscores the mistaken steps in this colonization project, Grandin gives Ford credit for trying to reclaim a “holistic” capitalism in which “the extraction and processing of raw materials, integrated assembly lines, working-class populations, and consumer markets created vibrant economies and robust middle classes.” By the 1940s, however, restraint was antiquated as Ford’s pastoralist vision gave way to an advanced capitalism, which today pursues low-wage labor and high-yield corporate profits at any cost on a global stage.

So it is that Grann and Grandin both speak to the “restlessness” and “frustrated idealism” of modernity in brilliant fashion. I learned much from these two books. But most of all, I enjoyed being caught in “the grip” of discovery as these two phenomenal writers swept me out of the wintery cold and into the hot, humid, dangerous jungles of a faraway place.
Preview From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: From Bible Belt to Sunbelt.

--Marshal Zeringue