- The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Volume 4: Global America, 1915–2000
With Global America, 1915–2000, D.W. Meinig concludes his monumental historical geography of the United States, The Shaping of America. This is the fourth volume in a series originally conceived to be one less than that, and we are all the more fortunate for this additional volume. The breadth of research, depth of insight, and soundness of judgment remain as characteristic of this fourth installment as they have been in each of the previous books. Meinig has produced a work of lasting significance.
The first volume in the series, Atlantic America, 1492–1800 (Meinig 1986), sounded the fundamental themes of the entire opus. “My emphasis upon social and cultural patterns,” Meinig wrote at the time, “reflects not only what I enjoy learning about areas but, more important, my conviction that the geography of such things has been seriously undervalued in descriptions and assessments of the United States” (p. xvi). By the time Volume Two appeared, Meinig knew that nineteenth-century developments would require more space than he had initially allotted. Hence Continental America, 1800–1867 (Meinig 1993), was to be followed by the third book in the series, Transcontinental America, 1850–1915 (Meinig 1998). The striking thing was, as Meinig put it, “the amount of basic geographic change” undergone by the United States over the span of the nineteenth century (Meinig 1993, p. xiii). Indeed. As the final volume of The Shaping of America makes clear, changes in the superstructure have been as, or more, important since the early twentieth century, redefining the very nature, form, and meaning of America’s geographic foundation.
Global America proceeds in three parts, the first of which is “Technology: Mobilization and Acceleration,” the second “Morphology: Migrations and Formations,” and the third “Mission: Assertions and Impositions.” As always, the symmetries of Meinig’s thought are apparent, elegantly leading the reader through masses of otherwise dense and discrete data and developments. Part One hones in “on some of the instruments and networks that . . . channel movement and communication between places, on various ligatures that bind together the American space” (p. 3). Beginning with the first calls for a national automotive highway system (clearly heard by 1915), this portion of the book treats such further mobilizing innovations as radio transmission and air transportation, all of them fundamentally powered through an emergent, continental grid of electrical energy. Chronologically, Part One continues into the post-World War II period, ending with a chapter on the high-speed audio-visual technologies of the twentieth century, such as television and the Internet. Ultimately one senses Meinig’s own mixed feelings about the role of technology in the contemporary historical geography [End Page 136] of the United States, as this part of the book finishes by invoking the urban critic Lewis Mumford’s early skepticism about the fate of community in an age of mass communication.
Part Two of Global America examines the relationship of nation to region with an accent on demography—entertainingly exemplified by the inclusion of a cartoon from The New Yorker in which a husband explains, “I was raised in New York and Nancy is from L.A., but we’re bringing up the children bicoastal” (p. 280). This is the part of the book that most addresses the social and cultural questions of long-standing interest to Meinig. He assembles several themes and persuasively maps them as a consolidated unit of historical geography that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century and momentously changed in the second: the 1950s as watershed. The decades leading up to and out of this mid-century turning point permit Meinig to touch on such things as: continental migrations and extra-continental immigrations, the Southern agrarians of the 1930s, the idea of “megalopolis” (the word coined in 1961 to describe the heavy peopling of the...