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The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal
     

The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal

3.1 7
by Julie Greene
 

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A revelatory look at a momentous undertaking-from the workers' point of view

The Panama Canal has long been celebrated as a triumph of American engineering and ingenuity. In The Canal Builders, Julie Greene reveals that this emphasis has obscured a far more remarkable element of the historic enterprise: the tens of thousands of workingmen and

Overview

A revelatory look at a momentous undertaking-from the workers' point of view

The Panama Canal has long been celebrated as a triumph of American engineering and ingenuity. In The Canal Builders, Julie Greene reveals that this emphasis has obscured a far more remarkable element of the historic enterprise: the tens of thousands of workingmen and workingwomen who traveled from all around the world to build it. Greene looks past the mythology surrounding the canal to expose the difficult working conditions and discriminatory policies involved in its construction. Drawing extensively on letters, memoirs, and government documents, the book chronicles both the struggles and the triumphs of the workers and their fami­lies. Prodigiously researched and vividly told, The Canal Builders explores the human dimensions of one of the world's greatest labor mobilizations, and reveals how it launched America's twentieth-century empire.

Editorial Reviews

David Oshinsky
Less interested in the now fabled engineering feats of the project, [Greene] instead emphasizes the human dimension—the daily lives of the thousands of workers and family members who journeyed to the Canal Zone from all parts of the world seeking adventure, better wages or simply a fresh start…The real strength of The Canal Builders lies not in floating big theories, but in recreating forgotten lives. It is history from the bottom up, and it speaks for 60,000 anonymous people who helped build what President Theodore Roosevelt grandiosely called "the greatest work of the kind ever attempted."
—The New York Times
Library Journal

With the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal coming in five years, interest has resurfaced in a topic that has already prompted study, most notably David McCullough's best-selling The Path Between the Seas(1977). Whereas McCullough told the classic tale of the first major American engineering feat of the 20th century, these two new books recount only parts of the story. Nonetheless, The Canal Builders is more than a footnote. Greene, a labor historian (Univ. of Maryland, College Park; Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917) is well qualified to tell the story, from the bottom up, of the canal's construction. She interweaves newly unearthed documentary records in a social history linked to the emerging "American empire" and its Bull Moose Progressives, racial segregation, and labor movements. An exceptional writer, Greene has produced a narrative that ranges from the canal's inception up to the current political situation regarding Panama and the United States.

By comparison, Seaway to the Future, a revision of Missal's dissertation from the University of Cologne, is a methodological footnote aimed at justifying a "cultural history of empire." Though he is a journalist in Germany, Missal's work here relies more on neo-Marxist theory and speculation than on uncovering new facts. Readers are bombarded with the word empire throughout the text. Yet arrogance and hubris explain as much as empire: the author might have been more to the point if he'd noted that this huge governmental task was an invitation to trouble owing to how labor and racial conditions prevailed inthe United States then. Most libraries will suffice with McCullough's classic; larger ones may find interest in The Canal Builders. Only academic libraries with cultural history collections are likely to find interest in Seaway to the Future.
—William D. Pederson

Kirkus Reviews
The Path Between the Seas, viewed from a decidedly different angle. Most histories focus on the larger-than-life men who conceived the Panama Canal, particularly President Theodore Roosevelt and chief engineers John Stevens and George Goethals. Greene (History/Univ. of Maryland; Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917, 1998, etc.) shifts the focus away from those at the top, instead telling the story of rank-and-file workers on the ground. The incredibly diverse labor force assembled between 1904 and 1914, tens of thousands strong, included Americans, West Indians, Mexicans and workers from all over South America and Europe. When they arrived in the Canal Zone, they soon realized that conditions were brutal. The weather was hot, the work was extremely dangerous, the food was barely edible and early on there were outbreaks of yellow fever, bubonic plague, malaria and pneumonia. An estimated 15,000 workers died during the course of the building project, mostly nonwhites. American officials imported segregationist and anti-union policies from home; nonwhite workers, particularly West Indians, received far lower pay. Dissatisfaction eventually flared up into strikes and threats of riots. The author deftly details how hard-line American policy clashed with the reality of managing an army of laborers in a foreign land. Officials were eventually forced to revise their policies and make concessions to workers on many issues. Greene also examines the resentment generated by American colonialism, ably illustrated with the story of a 1912 riot in Panama City between American personnel and Panamanians that caused the death of one U.S. citizen.American imperialism was frequently at odds with American idealism, the author skillfully demonstrates. A telling quote from Secretary of State Elihu Root conveys the essential: "The Constitution follows the flag, but it does not catch up with it."Engaging labor history, and an astute examination of American policies. Agent: Geri Thoma/Elaine Markson Agency
From the Publisher
"A telling portrait of exploitation, privilege and insularity, backed by a mountain of fresh research." ---The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101011553
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/05/2009
Series:
Penguin History of American Life Series
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
496
Sales rank:
600,331
File size:
2 MB

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“A telling portrait of exploitation, privilege and insularity, backed by a mountain of fresh research." —-The New York Times

Meet the Author

Julie Greene is a professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park and the author of Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917.

Karen White has been narrating audiobooks since 1999, with more than two hundred to her credit. Honored to be included in AudioFile's Best Voices and Speaking of Audiobooks's Best Romance Audio 2012 and 2013, she is also an Audie Award finalist and has earned multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards.

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Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I struggled to get past the constant references to race and class and struggle. Somehow behind the complaining of the workers and the negative comments of Gorgas' wife there was actually a canal being built. Never mind that the men (sorry, the white men) who built the canal did the super human. Never mind that the USA triumphed where all others would likely have failed. What is important is a detailed examination of where the common laborer slept and what he ate and how he was treated on this train ride every day. Amazing. No context. Just judgment from the 21st century. I am currently employed as a Chief Engineer building the new locks at Panama. I wanted a work of history to help me understand the project from a historical aspect. I have read McCullough's work; thankfully first. He did not gloss over the failings of the United States, the treatment of black workers, or any number of shortcomings that by today's standards we would frown on. But by heavens he did acknowledge the triumph of America and American ideals over the near impossible. I wish I had read a little about Ms Greene before I bought this book. Its horrid. I would not recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn anything about the Panama Canal. Its full of class and race bating and adds nothing to the record other than the overwhelming feeling of needing a shower. I am an immigrant to the USA coming to it in the mid sixties. I don't understand the need of the American elite to continuously destroy itself. Immigrants are attracted to Americas strength. We know there are weaknesses; had there not been any where we came from we would not be Americans. But by heavens stop it already. This book is an embarrassment. I cant strongly enough recommend against it. But by all means read McCullough's masterpiece from 1977. It informs and inspires.
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