- Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal
American historians have long recognized the significance of the construction of the Panama Canal to American diplomatic history. More recently, historians have noted the creation of the Canal Zone, and the canal itself, as key components of early twentieth-century American imperialism. What these works have lacked, argues historian Alexander Missal, is a consideration of the cultural impact of the canal. What role did the canal play in the Progressive-Era American imagination? He answers that question quite convincingly in Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal. Drawing on discourse analysis, Missal examines the efforts of a group of men he calls the "Panama authors," arguing that they "did not merely articulate 'ideas,' about the Canal," but instead regulated what could be thought about both the Canal and American society (18). He argues that they interpreted the Canal and its construction in ways that expressed and reinforced the American search for order and middle-class yearnings for utopian community amidst the apparent social chaos of the early twentieth century.
Missal's work is divided into five chapters, along with an introduction and a conclusion. A lengthy literature review in the introduction is quite useful since the history of the Canal may not appear on the readings lists of many historians. Chapter one reviews the history of the Canal and the lengthy negotiations necessary to engineer its creation and discusses the significance of the canal to President Theodore Roosevelt. Missal then turns to four different ways in which the Canal was interpreted in American culture. In chapters two through four, he examines how the Panama authors constructed the Canal for common readers, how photographers constructed the canal and its construction, and how these authors described the culture and society that developed in the Canal Zone. The final chapter departs from the Panama authors to explore San Francisco's 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition which celebrated the completion of the canal. Historians have rarely considered the histories of the fair and the canal together and Missal's analysis effectively argues that although both fair and canal were heralded as "agents of universal peace," together they legitimated American expansion abroad (195).
This ambitious book tackles a number of disparate themes through the lens of the Canal. From the links between photography and race to the way the New Intellectuals grappled with state socialism and the creation of an "American utopia" in the Canal Zone, Missal effectively argues that the Canal occupied the American imagination in various ways in the early twentieth century. This interpretation of the Canal's influence on American culture is intriguing, and raises a number of further questions. Because Missal's work focuses on the early decades of the twentieth century, it would be interesting to see how the Canal is described after 1920. Do its meanings change? Applying discourse analysis and the questions of cultural history to an event often understood solely as a diplomatic event or a triumph of engineering allows Missal to demonstrate that these such events are never wholly separate from American culture. Instead, these seminal events are interpreted for the American public in ways that capture the cultural and social anxieties of the time. [End Page 292]