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Seaway to the Future

American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal

Alexander Missal

Publication Year: 2008

Realizing the century-old dream of a passage to India, the building of the Panama Canal was an engineering feat of colossal dimensions, a construction site filled not only with mud and water but with interpretations, meanings, and social visions. Alexander Missal’s Seaway to the Future unfolds a cultural history of the Panama Canal project, revealed in the texts and images of the era’s policymakers and commentators. Observing its creation, journalists, travel writers, and officials interpreted the Canal and its environs as a perfect society under an efficient, authoritarian management featuring innovations in technology, work, health, and consumption. For their middle-class audience in the United States, the writers depicted a foreign yet familiar place, a showcase for the future—images reinforced in the exhibits of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that celebrated the Canal’s completion. Through these depictions, the building of the Panama Canal became a powerful symbol in a broader search for order as Americans looked to the modern age with both anxiety and anticipation.
            Like most utopian visions, this one aspired to perfection at the price of exclusion. Overlooking the West Indian laborers who built the Canal, its admirers praised the white elite that supervised and administered it. Inspired by the masculine ideal personified by President Theodore Roosevelt, writers depicted the Canal Zone as an emphatically male enterprise and Chief Engineer George W. Goethals as the emblem of a new type of social leader, the engineer-soldier, the benevolent despot. Examining these and other images of the Panama Canal project, Seaway to the Future shows how they reflected popular attitudes toward an evolving modern world and, no less important, helped shape those perceptions.

Best Books for Regional Special Interests, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the Public Library Association

“Provide[s] a useful vantage on the world bequeathed to us by the forces that set out to put America astride the globe nearly a century ago.”—Chris Rasmussen, Bookforum

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Originally conceived as a shortcut, the Panama Canal does not always serve this purpose, asWoody Allen’s character Alvy Singer and I can testify. After many years of discussion, research, and writing, I am pleased to be able to thank the people and institutions instrumental in the...

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Approaching the Panama Canal: An Introduction

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pp. 3-20

The Panama Canal, at least from a Western perspective, is a feature of world history. It symbolizes a century-old dream, the passage to India, connecting oceans and continents. At the time of its completion in 1914, it was an engineering feat of unique and mind-boggling dimensions...

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1. Logistics of Expansion: The Long Road to Realization

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pp. 21-54

For the European explorers and conquerors, the Isthmus of Panama was a historic place. On his fourth voyage, Christopher Columbus entered the mouth of the Chagres, still believing he was facing the coast of East Asia. Nine years later, in 1513, the Spaniard Vasco Nu

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2. American Triumph: Explaining the Canal Project

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pp. 55-79

When most of the Panama authors were writing their books and articles, the Canal had almost become a reality. But could the average American actually comprehend what had been achieved in the Isthmian jungle, thousands of miles away, employing technological and...

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3. The Engineered View: The Panama Canal in Pictures

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pp. 80-121

In their efforts to interpret the building of the Panama Canal, policymakers and popular authors relied both on texts and images. The dimensions of the project surpassed all prior achievements in the history of engineering. At the same time, it took shape in a foreign country, in...

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4. Ideal Community: The Canal Zone as an American Utopia

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pp. 122-163

The staggering dimensions of the Panama Canal and the wonder of the engineering work were the main factors that drew the public’s attention to the Isthmus. The Panama authors devoted a large part of their descriptions and interpretations to the construction of the giant...

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5. Celebrating the Canal: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition

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pp. 164-196

The success stories of the Panama authors had all been written with a happy ending in mind: the grand opening of the waterway. But political developments in Europe interfered, and the event turned into an anti-climax. On June 28, 1914, a Serb nationalist killed the heir to the...

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Conclusion: Visiting a Construction Site

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pp. 197-201

A few years before its centennial, the Panama Canal essentially remains the same structure that was completed in 1914. Even though some ships had already been too big for the passage by the 1930s, few changes were made in the following decades. Only...


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pp. 203-259


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pp. 261-267

E-ISBN-13: 9780299229436
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299229405

Publication Year: 2008